Category Archives: History

Hold Them Close: A Love Letter to Black Children by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Patrick Dougher with photography by Jamel Shabazz

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Hold Them Close: A Love Letter to Black Children by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Patrick Dougher with photography by Jamel Shabazz

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The power, the lyricism, the images, the layers- this book is not just for children, it is for everyone.  I have spent time with this book and it cannot be rushed, it needs to be felt and explored and reflected upon to feel the emotion that seeps from each and every page.  The book is remarkable in the amount of hope and warmth combined with history and social activism present.  It weaves together the personal with the community with the struggle past and present so flawlessly, but for me it is the pictures that complement the text so well that make this book spectacular on so many levels.  It is not a book for me to review, it is a book for me to support and elevate in any way I can.  The author is Muslim, there is nothing Islam specific in the text, aside from mentioning Malcolm X, and it should be required reading and sharing for everyone.  May Allah swt make us better to one another and actively work against oppression, ameen.

The book is framed as a letter, encouraging happy things to be held close.  For the young and old with stars in their eyes to be be held and elevated.  For stories of greatness to be passed down.  Stories of Kings, of Sojourners and Malcolms.  

The book encourages pushing away the disappointments, but to let the tears come. To not forget the lynchings, slavery, police brutality, oppression.  To stand and make it heard that you matter.

The illustrations are a mix of photographs and collage style layers.  The joy in a child that is very real, carrying those that came before.  Images of the past pulled to be seen in the present, very much a part of today.  The colors, the expressions, the hope, it radiates off the page with the coaxing of the text and becomes a feeling of both being held, and feeling support to take the next step.  Absolutely beautiful from beginning to end.

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The backmatter contains an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, Background information, and Selected Sources.

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Available in libraries and book sellers, including here.

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They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom by Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri

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They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom by Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri

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The writing style makes this book easy reading, but the content contained is absolutely horrific, heart breaking, and hard to truly comprehend.  If this was fiction it would be overkill, barbaric, cruel; the fact that it is factual, current, and ongoing is inexcusable.  There is no humanely possible way that we can still be ignorant or apathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.  It is an occupation.  It is apartheid.  It is oppression.  I often don’t review adult non fiction, but because this is ongoing and we have the power to do something, BDS, I’m reviewing this book.  The book describes torture, death, abuse, cruelty, you name it, but I think mature young adult readers can and should read it, along with every adult. A history of major events in Palestine interwoven with Ahed Tamimi’s own experiences in the last few years, she was 16 when imprisoned, so the recent past, as lived by her and understood by her, is powerful, moving, and inspiring.

SYNOPSIS:

The book shares a lot of facts, but because the facts are contextualized you feel yourself absorbed by what it means to have your land taken, your home bulldozed.  It isn’t just statistics of growing settlements, it is being cutoff from the Mediterranean Sea that you can see from the hills in your village, but cannot access because of checkpoints and armed guards, and walls.  It is understanding why throwing a rock, or slapping and kicking are a form of defiance, not terrorism.  It is truly seeing the situation from someone living it every day.  There is nothing for me to critique or opine about in her story, nor in the book and presentation. It is hard to read, it is harder yet to know that it still persists.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I sobbed and clenched my fist and Googled again what companies and organizations to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS).  That is what the book is asking those of us who support the Palestinian cause to do.  She says they don’t want our pity, they want our action.  They want us to look at South Africa and realize the power of economic efforts by the global community on an issue. They want us to be educated about what they endure and educate others.  They want us to help stop the erasure of Palestine and Palestinians.  I’m so grateful that the book pointed out the direction we should take, a bleeding heart is not enough.

I love that Ahed owns her own learning and growth as she got to know Israeli Jews sympathetic to the right of Palestinians, that protested with her and her village, that fought the legal battles using their privilege to help the oppressed. I love that the book is personal and that she doesn’t apologies, that she addresses the criticisms against her, that she calls on her own people to unify, and that she is so so fierce. 

I can’t imagine what her life is like, and it is truly humbling to imagine yourself in her shoes, in her mother’s shoes, her father’s.  It isn’t a life anyone would chose, it isn’t a spotlight you would want.  No parent would willingly push their child to this, so that she at such a young age had to endure and become what she is today, is humbling.   

Islam is not a big part of the book, but Ramadan, and jummah prayers, janaza and praying salat are occasionally included.  

FLAGS:

Death, fear, torture, killing, murder, oppression, loss, hate, racism, everything you can imagine and then some.  There is also mention of two men having sex and a man stripping, while on prison to court transport.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to attend a book club or panel discussion by Palestinians in the community using the book as a starting point for telling their own stories.  I think a high school book club could handle the book, but nothing younger than that. Please purchase a book, check it out from your library, request your library to shelve it, and spread the word about this memoir that is both personal and informative.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary People Change the World: I am Muhammad Ali by Brad Meltzer illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

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Ordinary People Change the World: I am Muhammad Ali by Brad Meltzer illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

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I think this 2022 published biography of Muhammad Ali just might be my favorite.  At 40 pages long and meant for first graders and up, it actually mentions that he is Muslim in multiple places.  So often these biographies about him or Malcolm X fail to incorporate their religion and just relegate their name changes to a footnote or after thought.  The book is engaging, informative, it is sourced, and the illustrations adorable.  My kids and I have read the book multiple times and are still enjoying the detailed illustrations (they even include #muslimsintheillustrations) and text.  Sports fans and even those that are not will appreciate what Muhammad Ali achieved, overcame, and accomplished.

The biography starts at Muhammad Ali’s birth and ends with his fight in Zaire- detailing his personality, growing up, how he got into boxing, becoming Muslim, refusing to go to war, and his biggest fights.  It weaves in how he worked against racism, standing up for his religion, and living life on his terms, at every step.  As the chronological story fades, it shows him lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and the text starts to focus on the lessons that Ali fought to highlight, by encouraging us to continue his legacy.

The illustrations show how his message is still powerful and inspiring to athletes, kids, ordinary people-everyone, the world over.  Ali stays depicted as a small child throughout, and the author captures his charisma, charm, and entertaining persona.  The final spread before the sources and further reading suggestions show a timeline of Muhammad Ali’s life and a few photographs of his life.

I need to read the other books in the series to see if they are just as engaging.  Undoubtedly Muhammad Ali’s story is entertaining and inspiring even when poorly written, but I have a feeling this particular biography really shines because the author and the subject matter came together.  I highly recommend this book for families, schools, and classrooms alike.

You can order it at Amazon and if you use this link, I get a few pennies! Thanks!

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Hope on the Horizon: A Children’s Handbook on Empathy, Kindness, & Making a Better World by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Isobel Lundie

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Hope on the Horizon: A Children’s Handbook on Empathy, Kindness, & Making a  Better World by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Isobel Lundie

This delightful 288 page handbook pulled me in, inspired me, enlightened me, and allowed me to reminisce about incredible fictional characters from iconic books, tv shows, and movies.  Concepts such as kindness, empathy, friendship, deflecting negativity, seeing beyond labels, and asking for help, are framed around the fictional character’s strengths to introduce famous real life people from the past and present, as well as not so famous people the author personally knows and works with.  Written with the author speaking directly to the reader, there are also calls to actions, questions, prompts, and resources to help mature middle grade readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with an introduction about who the author is and her getting to know the reader, before introducing the concepts the book will cover and how it will go about doing so.  It establishes the super power of kindness and five golden rules.  The 10 chapters of the book then follow a loose format of introducing a fictional character and why the author admires them: Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tintin, She-Ra, Superman, Samwise Gamgee, etc., her connection to them and to a theme: hope, being a ripple starter, never giving up. to name a few.  The book then highlights how the character and theme tie in to a cause that the author is passionate about, refugees, education, feeding the hungry, foster care, etc., then spotlights exceptional people the author has gotten to know personally in her activism that have made an incredible difference in the world, before offering a checklist of how you too can take action.  And finally a famous person is celebrated as being the culmination of all the strengths, characteristics, and super powers mentioned.  People such as Greta Thunberg, Albert Einstein, aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, footballer activist Marcus Rashford and more.  Often there are reflections, and the easy banter and conversation between the author and the young reader never leaves the text.  The reader and the connection to the reader is always prioritized and included in the sharing of information, motivation to action, and celebration of individuals real and pretend that have made a positive difference.

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is nothing overtly Islamic in the book, but there are Muslims featured as both famous real life examples and the author’s personal acquaintances.  Most importantly the author is unapologetically Muslim and offers glimpses of her own childhood growing up Muslim in the UK.  And as a hijab wearing Muslim, the illustrations also proudly show her smiling, eating chocolate and being an activist making the world a better place for all.

I love that the tone of the book is optimistic even when discussing difficult themes and heartbreaking realities of society.  The playfulness of the banter keeps the reader engaged and the text light.  Even if you don’t know the characters referenced, the urge to read their stories is a secondary benefit, and one that I think will further young world changers’ critical thinking skills.  Finding the good in people, even if they aren’t real, is such a lens that needs to be used more often, and the book does a tremendous job of stressing this.

FLAGS:

Talk of refugees, homelessness, food insecurities, abuse, poverty. Nothing is overly detailed, but the concepts are touched upon and explained as needed which could possibly be triggering or difficult to fully grasp to younger readers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book can be read straight through or referenced, you can even thumb through and read sections that appeal to you.  I don’t know exactly who the book will resonate strongest with, but I’ve got my own children reading it, so I will happily report back. I think it deserves a place on every book shelf and even if only portions are shared with a class, the discussion and foundation that it could provide would be incredibly powerful.  I could see an English teacher encouraging essays about fictional character traits in the “real” world being assigned after reading, or History teachers spending time on some of the characters highlighted, it really is a great tool, a handbook, for young and old alike.

The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz illustrated by Saffa Khan

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The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz illustrated by Saffa Khan

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I’ve noted over the years how much I want to love these type of collections, but ultimately I just don’t.  The reason I gave this one a try was quite simply the reassuring introduction.  The book immediately detailed the checklist required to make it into the book, the criteria required, and acknowledged the limitations that the book overall, and personalities included, would have in the presentation. There are sources at the end for each of the 30 people included as well.  Unlike most books in the genre, this book got out in front of my most common complaints: the lack of transparency for how the people were selected, where the primary source information was obtained from, how the order is organized, and the Eurocentric and pop culture framing that is both pandering and renders the book cumbersome a few years after it is published.  For the most part, this book is the best I’ve seen yet, but that isn’t to say I loved it.  While the requirements to be included were made apparent, there is still a lot of opinionated statements about how “religious” or “conservative” or “devout” or “mainstream” or “strict” a person is or was, that rubbed me the wrong way.  Also knowing that the person had to identify as Muslim to be eligible seems like a black and white issue, but a few of the personalities are very controversial (some noted and some not), and I am not an expert at all.  One of the problems with books like this is they present as non fiction, and no matter the transparency, just the mere fact of who is included and who is not is a judgement call and wrought with bias.  It is nice to thumb through, but I don’t know that it would get repeated use, or that it could really be used as a reference.  It is informative and I recognize that I went in to it very skeptical, but only a few text passages connected faith to the person’s accomplishments, and so while they identify as Muslim, it doesn’t necessarily radiate pride or admiration for Muslims as a whole.  For better or worse, if anything, it made me want to conduct my own research on many that were featured. 

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The 30 included in the book:

 

A few I was concerned by, which made me question the ones that I learned something new about. Clearly there are reasons that I shy away from non-fiction.  I wish the book would have had Muslim beta readers, I am willing to assume that it did not.  Take for example the section on Saladin, I absolutely get why his name is shown as both Saladin and Salah al-Din, the book is in English presumably for western readers and that is how he is known.  But why when it says that his real name is Yusuf, is Joseph in the parenthesis? No one else’s names in the book are given the English equivalents of their Arabic or Persian or other native language. Similarly so few tied back to Islam or an Islamic perspective being credited for having a role in their noteworthy accomplishments.  Even Muhammad Yunus when it discusses how interest was not a part of the micro loan process- it didn’t add even one more sentence explaining that interest is not allowed in Islam, why leave that out?  

I liked that the parameters required that the person was influential more globally than just to their own country, but Rebiya Kadeer seemed to be more localized in her work with Muslims in China even when she moved out of China, blurring the rigid standards of who was to be included and who was to be left out.  

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I do like that it mentions Rumi’s religion is often conveniently ignored as the west has made him a hero and chosen to forget his faith.  Similarly, I like that it tries to correct when Ibn Battuta is called the Marco Polo of Islam, for in reality Marco Polo was the Ibn Battuta of Europe.  And I appreciated that Benazir Bhutto was noted as being controversial and not well liked. 

If this type of book appeals to you, you can purchase it here.

 

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.

Nana Asma’u by Aaliyah Tar Mahomed illustrated by Winda Lee

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Nana Asma’u by Aaliyah Tar Mahomed illustrated by Winda Lee

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This book may only have 14 pages of text and be meant as an introduction for early preschool aged children and up, but I learned so much, or rather was made aware of so much that I knew nothing about, that I’m now eager to research her and the Sokoto Caliphate and the impact of Jajis.  The beautiful, bright, engaging pictures, the simple deliberate text, and the inspiring content matter make this a great book to share with little ones, and to keep on the shelf for repeated readings and reminders to learn more about this remarkable woman for older children.  My only wish was that there were some reference notes or sources included to give that extra reassurance of authenticity.

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The book tells about Nana Asma’u’s life starting from being a curious child and asking questions to the wise women in her community.  By the time she grew up she had memorized the Quran and spoke four languages amongst many other things, and Nana loved to write poetry.

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During this time, there was a lot of conflict in Western Africa, and Nana’s father, Shehu Usman resolved the issues and created the Sokoto Caliphate.  With peace, Nana wanted to help educate the people. She thought long and hard about how to do it.

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She eventually brought together women from different regions of the Caliphate and taught them through poetry, she then sent the women back to their homes to share what they had learned.  These women were known as Jajis, and this tradition still exists today.

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I didn’t love the phrasing that she had learned all about Islam, seeing as one can always learn more.  And I would have like Prophet to have been capitalized and salawat given for respect.  Overall, a great book that alhumdulillah I was able to purchase from Crescent Moon Store.

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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Journey of the Midnight Sun by Shazia Afzal illustrated by Aliya Ghare

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Journey of the Midnight Sun by Shazia Afzal illustrated by Aliya Ghare

What an absolute joy to learn about something real for the first time in a children’s picture book meant for ages 3-5.  I am baffled that this story wasn’t celebrated and shared by not just Muslim’s everywhere, but Canadians as well.  It is a sweet instance of real life being harder to believe than fiction.  It warms your heart and reminds you that there are so many good people doing selfless things for the benefit of others, every single day, subhanAllah.  As for the 32 page book itself, story inspiration aside- I kind of wish it had more details of the real story in it.  The factual blurb on the back cover was a bit more awe inspiring than the totality of the book.  I think it is because it is meant for such little ones, but I don’t know for sure.  I hope that there will be more books for various ages, about this mosque’s incredible 2010 journey. 

There is a small community in Inuvik, in Northern Canada.  The growing Muslim community has outgrown their one room space and it is more expensive to build a masjid there, than to deliver a pre built masjid from Winnipeg. 

With the help of some non profit and local groups, a masjid is built and sent north, hopefully able to reach its final destination before the river freezes.  The journey is fraught with obstacles: roads are too narrow, bridges not ready, low utility wires. weather concerns, construction, the masjid tipping over, but alas it arrives, alhumdulillah.

The entire community welcomes the new masjid, and the Muslim’s have a new space to pray and gather.

I like that there are maps and indicators of the distance.  And while I like the interfaith aspect in Inuvik being presented, it seems incredibly specific in a very vague book for small children. Why is the imam identified separately, the whole paragraph is just awkward.   Additionally, there is no explanation for why a minaret was needed or if it is critical to a mosque.  Some information other than the children wanted one, would help avoid confusion seeing as this mainstream published book is not targeting only Muslims who would know the function of a minaret, and that they aren’t required structures.

Some links about the event that inspired the story:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-11731017

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/11/10/north_americas_most_northerly_mosque_officially_opens_in_the_arctic.html