Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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It is hard to believe that this book is middle grade- the world building, the social and political commentary, the authenticity, the history, the humor, the writing quality, the richness, really makes me embarrassed that as a child I never gravitated towards books like this.  Everything I love about contemporary fiction seems to be done so well in the handful of fantasy books I’ve read of late, add in layers of adventure, imagination, and nuance, and I don’t know why I took so long to embrace this genre.  Not to say every MG fantasy is written this well, but why settle for only friendship, family, and identity issues when you can have all of it and dragons?  This 352 page book about a Chinese American Hui Muslim kid is action packed, culture rich, unapologetically Muslim, and a gripping good time.  While I think lower MG could handle and enjoy the book, there is nothing explicit, it does in passing mention eunuchs, concubines, and adult entertainment, along with the main character stating that he is not attracted to girls a few times and that he acts like a girl, but presents as a boy, thus making me think middle school aged might be a better fit.  If younger kids read it, they may or may not even pause or notice the aforementioned possible flags, I only highlight them, so that my readers are aware and can be prepared to explain and discuss if needed.  As an adult reading it, I can see clearly that Zach is gay, but I don’t know that most kids will catch it.  The author skillfully hints at it, but doesn’t make it the focus of the story, ultimately making me feel like if you want to see it you will, if you don’t, you probably won’t. Oh and the chapter titles, they are awesome!

SYNOPSIS:

Zachary Ying is twelve and while he isn’t comfortable in his Maine school, he manages.  He dumps the delicious Chinese food his mom makes every day so that no one teases him for the smell it carries.  He tries to impress the other members of the Mythrealm club, a vr video game, without rocking the boat, and he loves his single mom who works hard since his father was killed in China advocating for the rights of Uyghurs.  He knows little about Chinese history, the language, or myths, but that all starts to change when his VR gaming headset becomes the host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. 

His mom becomes the target of demons and when her soul is taken, Zachary is off to China to secure the barrier that divides the worlds and keeps the spirits at bay.  To do that though he is going to need to learn Chinese history, the power of artifacts, and the role of myths in keeping stories alive.  With two friends, also possessed by past emperors, joining him, the adventure is non stop.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ramadan is mentioned on the very first page, that Zach’s mom wears hijab, that he only eats halal, and that details about life in China for Muslims is shared.  It isn’t the main part of the story, but it adds such a powerful layer, that I found myself looking up Hui Muslims and trying to rectify how little I know about Islam in China.  

The social commentary about which individuals from history are remembered and why some are celebrated and others vilified was so impressive to see in a MG fantasy book.  It doesn’t ask you to agree with the narrative, nor does it preach anything, it just presents it in all its beautiful shades of gray glory albeit often shrouded in humor.  I truly feel that most MG authors talk down to their readers, if these themes can be so strongly presented and consumed, what superficial fluff did I waste my time reading as a preteen?  Thankfully I’m an adult that loves juvenile fiction, so there is still hope for me yet.

FLAGS:

Magic, mythical gods, fighting, violence, lying, deceit, killing, crushes, same sex attraction, concubines are mentioned as are eunuchs, but nothing more is said about them.  Affairs and mistresses in context to myths and past emperors are mentioned.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could teach this.  Once you sense that he is gay it is hard to unsee, and in an Islamic school, that would be problematic.  I will have my own kids read the book, I don’t think there would be any concerns for me there.  A few weeks ago concubines were mentioned in a khutbah, so I’ve already had to explain that to one of my kids. 

PRE-ORDER BEFORE MAY 10, 2022 or PURCHASE AFTER HERE

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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This 152 page book reads like a historical fiction interfaith Magic Treehouse for middle grades tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I learned about Sephardic Jews, the language of Ladino, Prince Abdur Rahman, and a tiny bit about the Abbasids overthrowing the Ummayads.  I love that it starts with a map and ends with sources, facts about what information is real in the book and what is fiction, and a bit about Muslims and Jews and how to be an ally if you witness prejudice.  The book is co-authored, and in many ways the Jewish narrative does take the majority of the focus, but the Islamic phrases sprinkled in, the Islam practiced by a major character, and the setting, allow for both religions to shine and combine to make a compelling magical time traveling story for third graders (and their parents) and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Cousins Ava and Nadeem are in fifth grade and spend their afternoons afterschool with their Granny Buena.  Granny and Ava are Jewish and Nadeem is Muslim, though they believe differently, they always seem to find more that is the same, and respect is always given.  When they face bullying at school Granny Buena pulls out a crystal box full of buttons and tells the children, and the cat Sheba a tale about their ancestor Ester ibn Evram.  When she stops the story short, the two kids exam the button closer and find themselves back in time tasked with saving Prince Abdur Rahman and getting him from Africa to Spain.  They aren’t sure if that will be enough to get them back to their own time though, but they don’t have time to overthink it because if they fail, the Golden Age of Islam won’t happen, peace won’t come to Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the region, and their Jewish ancestors may face the backlash of helping the Muslim escape.  Along the way, they learn about their own family traditions, beliefs, and gain wisdom to handle their bullying problem at school.

WHY I LIIKE IT:

I love that I learned so much, and from what I could Google and ask about from those more knowledgeable, the facts about the time period and cultures all seem to check out.  Only one passage comparing Jewish belief and the text of the Quran is phrased oddly in my opinion, the rest of the Islamic sprinkling is well done.  There are numerous bismillahs, mashaAllahs, stopping for salat, quoting of the Quran and more.  The narrative is primarily Jewish, but the setting Islamic with athans being called and Salams being given.  The book does have a lot of Jewish detail, but I don’t think it was preachy, and the further uniqueness of Ladino words and culture I think would appeal to all readers no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are with the two religions.

There are some questions that as an adult reader I wanted to know more about: how Nadeem and his mom are practicing Muslims in a strong Jewish family, how making sure history happened as it happened the first time sent the two kids back…then why were they sent there at all, is there going to be more button adventures, were their two cats or was it the same cat?   Honestly, a lot of the more obvious fantasy plot holes were accounted for and done quickly and simply: how their clothes changed but the button remained, how they could speak the language, how confused their aunt would be when her real niece and nephew arrived, etc.. The writing quality kept it all clear for the reader, and did so without the pacing of the story suffering.

FLAGS:

Near death experience, magic, mention of killing, fear, deception, bullying, fighting, physical altercation, misogynistic assumptions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great story to share if I return to the classroom. The history, the religions, the storytelling would provide so much to connect to and learn about.  As a book club selection though, it would be too young for our middle school readers and ultimately too short.  I would consider it for a read a loud with fourth and fifth grade.

To Purchase: Here is the Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3D9LyxI

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.

Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

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Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

compasscoverDo you ever find yourself in the middle of an amazing historical fiction fantasy adventure graphic novel, reading as fast as you can to find out what happens next, while simultaneously having absolutely no clue what is going on? Yeah, I am was confused often in this upper YA/Teen (16+) 136 page book set in Europe during the Islamic Golden Age and starring a female from the renown House of Wisdom.  I’m fairly positive it is my own limitations that made the book confusing, but for those wiser and more versed in graphic novels, I would recommend this book.  It has action, adventure, science, history, philosophy, a strong Muslim character, friendship, wisdom, ingenuity, a bibliography, Mongols, Druids, and a dragon.

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SYNOPSIS:
Shahidah El-Amin is a Compass from the House of Wisdom, she is not a thief, she seeks knowledge which means that she is incredibly educated, fierce, and scrappy: part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider perhaps.  She is a hijab wearing, dua invoking, Qur’an quoting, don’t give me alcohol even as you are about to kill me, strong confident Muslim. 

The book opens with her finding an artifact and being betrayed by a fellow scholar and friend, Ling Hua, a Chinese scholar.  The two race to Wales to get to the possibly rumored Calderon of Eternal Life for different reasons and using different methods.  Along the way Shahidah shows her skills in surviving, understanding what her priorities are, and learning about friendship.  She will battle Master Hua, the Khan, a dragon, a bear, the Druids, a leper just to name a few as the fantasy world is developed and built up with historical accuracies thrown in.

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WHY I LIKED IT:

I love that the lead is a fierce female Abbasid Muslim from Baghdad and that there are a variety of religions and cultures mentioned and depicted.  It refers to Shahidah as an Arab witch by the enemy and calls Muslims “Mohammedans” which takes a bit of getting used to and I never got comfortable with.  I love the inclusion of ayats in transliterated text of the Arabic, and the concept is wonderful.  I got lost though in some of the world building and plot.  I think the action and illustrations are clear, but the text needed a little clarity in my opinion.  Again, I acknowledge my lack of familiarity with the concepts and format of the book.

I loved the bibliography and the notes included at the beginning and end.  I actually would have liked more information on the House of Wisdom and as always, a map.

FLAGS:

The concept and references make it for more mature readers.  There is also violence, a mention to love making, and depicted death, gore, killing, etc..

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Even though it is for older readers, I think it would be great on a library shelf for middle grades and up.  It probably isn’t for everyone, and many wouldn’t be tempted by it even, but the few kids that like this kind of content, will absolutely love the book.

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.

Inventors of the Golden Age (Just like) by Umm Laith and Muhammad Khaider Syafei (Proud Little Muslims)

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Inventors of the Golden Age (Just like) by Umm Laith and Muhammad Khaider Syafei (Proud Little Muslims)

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Usually when you purchase a personalized book, the charm is that you get to see a name of your choosing in the story, and that you can make the main character look a certain way.  So imagine my surprise when this book arrived, and yeah sure my son’s name and likeness was included, but the story and information contained was also really well done and engaging.  This book, even without the personalization, is a solid story highlighting Fatima al-Fihri, Abbas ibn Firnas, al-Zahrawi, al-Idrisi, and their skills of generosity, persistence, kindness, and adventure as they shaped the world as we know it.

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The fourth wall is broken as the book speaks to the reader encouraging them to come on an adventure in to the Golden Age.  A time when scientists, engineers, explorers, doctors, and astronomers were making remarkable advancements.

The first stop is Morocco to learn about Fatima al-Fihri and how she established the first university.  Her generosity in building and creating a place of Islam and learning is what set her apart and made her so remarkable.  It is then on to Abbas ibn-Firnas in Spain and his attempts at flying.  He failed often, but his mistakes helped him as he persisted and continued to learn and understand and make flight of humans possible.

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Al-Zahrawi, the surgeon, is who is detailed next, as his knowledge, skill, and inventions he made are still used today.  His regard for his patients fear and nerves and his kindness is what the book stresses before moving on to the mapmaker al-Idrisi.  Al-Idrisi was adventurous as he traveled the world making his maps and switching the poles.

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The book then focuses on the reader encouraging them to be generous and adventurous, kind and persistent, in making the future better like those mentioned from the past.

The book is horizontal, the pages thick, the faceless illustrations warm and detailed and the rhyming text flowing and appropriate for preschool aged children and up.

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Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Set in Daraya, and based on a real events in Syria, as well as the author’s own life in Lebanon, this 32 page elementary and up story does an amazing job of showing relatable childhood adventures and ingenuity shining through even in the most horrific of environments.  The book is inspiring and warm, but the backdrop of war is very much present.  Some young children may be bothered by the images and text, while others will benefit from understanding the humanity that is affected by such violence.  I know the book says the pages are not final, but I wanted to put it out to help drum up interest.  I feel this story would best work in intimate settings where discussion, compassion, and gratitude can all intuitively transpire.

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Nour’s best friend is her cousin Amir, they love to read and imagine adventure and secret societies.  As their dream to create a secret club, complete with a secret password and handshake, for them and their friends starts to come to fruition, war arrives first. 

Families are forced to seek shelter away from the bullets at night in their basements, and only are allowed to venture out when absolutely necessary.  Every time Amir goes out, he collects any books he finds, and encourages his friends to do the same.  

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They begin sorting the books, and trying to decide what to do with them, when Nour has an idea to create a secret library.  Everyone pitches in when an empty, half destroyed basement is located, and the books are moved and set up on discarded planks of wood.  A boy next door is entrusted with the secret handshake and becomes the deputy librarian.

As word spreads, everyone from boys and girls to soldiers and rescuers, collect books to stock the shelves and checkout books to keep their minds busy.  The library, named Fajr, is open every day from morning to evening and closed during Jummah.  It becomes the city’s best kept secret and a source of hope for the community.

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There are references at the back that tell about the true story of the Secret Library in Syria, the author’s memories of hiding in the basement in Lebanon, a glossary of terms, information about Syria, the illustrator’s research, information about the war, and famous libraries in the Middle East.

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Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina Al-Hathloul illustrated by Rebecca Green

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Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina Al-Hathloul illustrated by Rebecca Green

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This 40 page early elementary book based on the efforts of the real life woman, Loujain AlHathloul, and her work to change the laws regarding women driving in Saudi Arabia, had a lot of promise.  Unfortunately, the symbolism connecting flying and driving, just didn’t work for me.  No one can flap their arms and fly, so to demand gender equality for an unrealistic action, is a big stretch that ultimately stretches itself too thin.  There is nothing Islamic, except women wearing a hijab in a few illustrations, or even Saudi specific in the book.  It talks of the desert, but the country is unnamed.   Overall, I just had so many questions such as: if she was flying before sunrise- how was she not seen returning from the sunflower patch, can women then never leave an area, are there ways they can fly as passengers, are there other modes of transportation, at what age are children allowed to fly, and so many more, that they prevented me from being inspired by the story.

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The book starts with Loujain believing in her self and knowing that one day she will fly.  She dreams of a place of a million sunflowers, a picture her dad has given her inspires her to seek out bright colors, capture them on film, and hang them in her room.

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In the morning her father straps on his wings, and flies off.  Loujain is not allowed to fly because she is a girl.  Her family tells her that one day she will.  When she tells the kids at school, they laugh at her.  When she pushes her dad to teach her, her mother advocates that he should.

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Loujain and her father practice flying before the sun rises, and finally they make the long journey to see the sunflowers.  Her father takes a picture of Loujain, and it appears the next day in the newspaper.  Other girls are inspired and begin to demand the right to fly too.

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I love the mom in the book, and her encouraging of Loujain’s dad to teach her.  She asks him, “if you don’t support her, who will?” I don’t know why the mom isn’t wearing a hijab on the last page though.  It seems like there is a subtle message there about hijab being legally required as well.

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The book is a reach, and for me it didn’t connect or leave an impression.  The information about the prison sentence and push back to achieve the legal change was far more interesting and memorable, but only a few paragraphs long at the end.

The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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I really enjoyed this book.  It is self published, and the expectation was zero and I honestly read all 214 pages in two sittings. I probably could have read it faster, but ahh kids and dinner, and my middle school son somehow got to it to read when I put it down.  We both enjoyed the quick pace, the strong Islamic presence, and the historical fiction based plot.  The book has a bit of language, hell and damn a few times, mentions prostitution and a brothel in two instances, and alcohol is present, but it is always crystal clear on Islamic and Muslim behavior.  The book is linear and straight forward and  probably YA readers will appreciate it, but I think it really is a middle school aged read, I think technically that makes it Young YA or Lower YA.  My only small grievance is the modern slang.  I appreciate that it isn’t written like Treasure Island and that you understand what the pirate crew is saying in plain modern English, but the few mentions of “idiot,” “chill out,” and “awesome” stick out very obviously and could easily be “fixed.”  Overall, so very impressed by the consistent pacing, historical references, writing quality, and internal reflection on our ummah’s strengths and weaknesses.

SYNOPSIS:

Farid is a young boy in Tunisia, and as the Spaniards start to flex their influence, his life begins to change.  The son of a fisherman, the family can barely enter the waters under the watchful eyes of the Spanish fleets.  When approached after a fight to join an Islamic pirate crew by Captain Aruj of the Barbarossa and his brother Khidr, he decides to leave his family and stretch his wings.   Having always dreamed of being in a leadership role, his optimism, and eagerness is quickly put to the test as the crews’ first mission in Northern Africa fails and sends the pirates scrambling on land.  They journey to the Mosque of Uqba (Great Mosque of Kairouan), and get help from the Emir in Tunis to replenish their losses.  It is then onto Tripoli where friendships and internal issues of race, and nationality threaten the cohesion of the Muslim pirates.  But it is in Spain where things really come to a head and Farid finds himself separated from his crew, in-prisoned for years, and tested both physical and emotionally that the story finds its climax before ending, and leaving the reader ready for more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I have a soft spot for historical fiction, the original American Girl books for me were treasures to behold.  So the setting of this book really won me over: the mention of rulers, historical landmarks, the pain of the Inquisition on Spanish Muslims, the fact that there was a not just one map in the book, but two, all great things.  Like I mentioned above the pacing of the book is quick, from start to finish, and it is a pirate story so there is death, violence, battles, killing, and treason, but seeing as often in books about these type of things, I find myself glossing over the long detailed battle scenes, I was grateful that they are short and quick and possibly overly simplified.  It discusses weaponry, but it is not detailed, no glossary is needed, although there is one of the Islamic words at the beginning.  As for the Islam presence, it is very much a part of the story.  They raid a ship, the alcohol goes in the sea, they call athan differently, the characters discuss different madhhabs, just rulers are just even if they aren’t Muslim, and terrible rulers can also be Muslim, it doesn’t shy away from internal reflection and I appreciate that.  The only thing that caught my attention of being unaccounted for Islamically was when Farid puts on red and gold pants to head in to battle.  One- that seems the opposite of camouflage, and two- many Muslim don’t find it permissible for men to wear red and gold, obviously different people feel differently, but it seemed odd that the colors were specifically mentioned in such a quick moving book to no end.

Character-wise, I wanted a little more insight into Sameer and his racism, I also would have liked a little more about Farid’s first day in the sun after imprisonment.  I liked that the Jewish struggles under King Ferdinand in Spain weren’t just mentioned, but were brought in to the story.  And while I appreciate the reasoning for showing that Muslims were hiding behind a brothel to participate in learning and worship and thikr, that and the mention of a woman trying to seduce Farid in the street, both make the target audience a little more mature than the rest of the book might warrant otherwise.

FLAGS:

There is killing, fighting, raiding, stealing and there is plenty of physical violence.   The book mentions prostitution, seduction, and there is a fleeting glance at a woman that the main character pauses for, knowing he should lower his gaze, but then she is rescued and never seen or heard from again.  There is mention of alcohol as it is captured, as non Muslims stagger around drunk, etc.. There are a few curse words used a few times each: damn and hell and God.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I would absolutely do this for a middle school book club amongst a mature group of girls and boys.  It is an easy read, but the discussions would be phenomenal as history and context would all come in to play.

For the sake of buzz and growth and attention, I hope the author will shop the book around, if he hasn’t already, see if it can be published on a larger platform and gain some traction.  We need books like this, solid Islamic fiction books, that aren’t shy to show our strengths and weaknesses and inspire our youth.

Esa & Sol’s Adventures: The Hunt for the Saphaea by Asma Maryam Ali, illustrated by Eman Salem

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Esa & Sol’s Adventures: The Hunt for the Saphaea by Asma Maryam Ali, illustrated by Eman Salem

It is a bit tricky to review a choose-your-own-adventure style book, as each story twists and turns and leaves the reader with a different ending and thus, a different impression. I tried to explore every story line in a book that I had little expectation of, it is an intentionally splintered story after all, but even at that, this fell really short. The core of the story: a Muslim and Jewish boy in Cordoba, Spain in 1080 exploring real facts in a fictionalized story about hunting down a missing astrolabe, really had a lot of potential, unfortunately the tiny size (maybe 3.5 x 5.5 inches) and only being 76 pages, the frightening cover, and the misprinted footnote glossy right at the start, set the tone for a weak forgettable book, and by the time you get to the actual story and plot, you really have very little substance to change your mind.

SYNOPSIS:
Two nine-year-old boys start off the story chasing after their donkey who has run off and sent their oranges spilling over all around the square. They should clean up the chaos, but they remember that they are supposed to meet Zarkali, the greatest astronomer in all of Spain, as he finally has a job for them after months of waiting. His latest work is a brilliant astrolabe, but when they get to his workshop he isn’t there. When he finally arrives with his assistant Aleho they are frantic as the astrolabe, the Saphea, is missing. The boys were to be asked to help transport it, as they would blend in unnoticed, but now that it is missing what should they do? Should they search for it? Investigate if it was stolen? Accept their punishment for the mess with the oranges and their donkey? Let the first choice of many begin the adventure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the author’s knowledge about Muslim Spain and how she tries to introduce it to children perhaps unaware of the rich history. The inside illustrations are wonderful, the cover truly misleads readers, and naturally I wish the book was larger in size and longer in length. The foundation of the story, the getting to know the characters and their world, needs to be longer. The story should be established before you have to make decisions. It is historical fiction, but needs the world building attention that a fantasy book would require, and this book just doesn’t have it. As a result the choices and endings, are all over the place, not just twists in the stories, but huge changes. Some of the paths no longer focus on the astrolabe that is missing, and seem to offer both threads of something far more sinister at play and choices that keep the boys lives mundane. The book counts on the reader re-reading the tale and making different choices, otherwise your interaction with the book could truly be over in nine pages, nine tiny pages at that. And like I said above regarding the cover and size, they don’t entice one to pick it up and read, then if your adventure is only a few pages long, and you already notice the repeated definition on pages 4 and 6 (before any choices are offered), chances are you won’t revisit the book, learn about real people, marvel at scientific discoveries, travel the region, appreciate interfaith harmony, and get swept up in a historically fictionalized tale that puts you in the drivers seat.

FLAGS:

Fine for middle grades and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I highly doubt the book would even be looked at on a classroom library shelf, I have been trying for days to get my own children to read the book: they love to read, they love history, they love books with options, but they have yet to open the front cover.