Category Archives: middle grades

Freestyle: A Graphic Novel by Gale Galligan

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Freestyle: A Graphic Novel by Gale Galligan

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I one hundred percent understand that Muslims are not a monolith, but, I’m truly tempted to reach out to the author/illustrator of this upcoming 272 page middle grade graphic novel and ask her why she chose to have the female instigator in this coming of age story- that focuses on a dance crew, said girl tutoring a boy one-on-one in his bedroom, Halloween and a school dance, wear hijab? Yes there is also parental expectations, friend drama, leaving for high school stresses, and yo-yoing, but Sunna Ahmad being presented as a Muslim definitely gives me pause.  There is no romance in the book save a few background characters filling in frames holding hands, and it never articulates that Sunna or her older brother Imran are Muslim, but she doesn’t wear hijab when home with her family, does wear it when she goes out, so it definitely seems to imply it.  The cover and inside pages are bright and clear, and I think the book will be very tempting for young Muslim readers with the visible hijabi on the front.  Additionally the book is published by Scholastic, so if you are a parent whose kids get book order forms and attends a school where the Scholastic Book Fair is a big deal, you might want to read the entire review to see if it is Islamic representation that you are comfortable with supporting.

SYNOPSIS:

The Eight Bitz B Boy band is in their final year of middle school before they all go in separate directions for high school.  They want to win this year’s competition, or at least the leader of the crew, Tess, does.  Tess doesn’t want them freestyling and messing around, she wants the choreography and dancing in-synch and on-point.  Her military dictatorship is tearing the crew a part.  When Cory’s grades are not where his parents want them, he is grounded from dancing and forced to work with a tutor, Sunna Ahmad.  Sunna is weird, always writing intently in a secret notebook at school, and Cory wants nothing to do with her.  When he happens to see her throwing her yo-yo at school, though, he is impressed.  Reluctantly she trades teaching him yo-yo tricks if he agrees to do the work needed to get his grades up. Using yo-yo angles to teach geometry, it doesn’t take long before the two are friends.  It comes to a culmination when he invites her to the Halloween dance and his crew is both shocked and mad that he is hanging out with her, when he should be practicing with them.  As secrets and intentions come out, Cory has to make things right with his parents, his crew, Sunna, and himself.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love graphic novels, they show context and setting and emotion, that often can’t be conveyed as well with words.  I absolutely love that Sunna wears different clothes on different days, from the hijab to the outfit, she has personality in her clothes as any middle schooler would, and nothing is mentioned about her hijab or her long sleeves, but the reader see’s it hopefully in a positive light. I do like the detail of her not covering at home when she is alone, or in the flashbacks when she is younger.

The story overall is decent and the added hip hop dancing and yo-yo infused details set the story apart, but some of the character building and plot points are a little rough.  When Sunna first starts tutoring Cory she feels like an adult disciplining, and reprimanding him.  She comes across as really arrogant and condescending, that he is somehow beneath her, yet they are the same age, in the same school, and are lab partners.  It reads off for no reason.

Similarly, I understand that the tension between middle schoolers and parents can be a source of contention, but the forced apology from Cory’s parents is incredible demeaning and cringe.  Sure flesh out that he shouldn’t yell at his parents, (Sunna shouldn’t either for that matter), but while the delivery was poor, the message was heartfelt and I think a book like this encouraging young kids to talk to their parents would be a great message, rather than have it almost glorified to not make the effort at all.  Not saying that the effort will always be received, but the forced apology would turn even kids with a good relationship with their parents questioning if it is worth talking to their mom and dad.

Poor communication and the stress it causes is a theme of the book, and I don’t understand why Tess keeps her choreography dreams a secret from the crew.  It seems underdeveloped, had she said that, that was the motivation, I think all the other seven members would have stepped up, not walked away.

FLAGS:

Music, dancing, girl and boys being alone with each other, girls and boys arms around each other, attending a school dance, girls and boys dancing together, Halloween being celebrated, birthday being celebrated, yelling back at parents, lying, secrets.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

In all honesty, I would probably not have this book on the library shelves, and would not display it during the book fair.  It normalizes a lot of gray if not haram actions for a very impressionable demographic because the character is visibly Muslim.  If the character was not visibly Muslim, I actually might be ok with shelving it and selling it.  The rep may be intended to show inclusion, but the character does not show actions that Islamically are appropriate.  If it were one or two actions, I might reconsider, but it is a lot very specific and varied activities.

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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This stand alone middle grade read by Muslim author Nizrana Farook is similar to her first two books about an elephant and a whale in that it is set in Serendib a long time ago and revolves around a beautiful wild animal and clever, endearing, determined young children. This actual story is an easy read at 203 pages (the end of the book is the first four chapters of one of her previously published books).  I think seven and eight year olds will enjoy getting to know Selvi and the beautiful leopard Lakka that she considers a friend.  For me the ending took an odd turn that seemed out of place, but up until then I was enchanted by the lush imagery, sheer determination, and sweet friendship shared within the pages.  The main character is not Muslim, but presumably some of the side characters are with names such as, Amir and Salma.

SYNOPSIS:
Selvi and her mother live in a small home on the mountain.  Most days she runs wild with a golden leopard she has named Lakka.  She keeps her distance, but there is a pattern to their interactions, and when Selvi’s mother finally allows her to go to school, and she finds the other children unkind, Lakka becomes her only friend.  One day poachers are on the mountain hunting not just any leopards, which are protected by the queen, but the rare golden one that is often seen in the area, Selvi tries to interfere.  And before she knows it, they are after her.  She hides near a home, and when the poacher’s come looking for her, she is at the mercy of Amir to lie and say he hasn’t seen her.  Amir is a classmate, a mean one, but he has seen her before with the leopard, and suddenly Lakka is not so alone.

Between making friends at school, battling her uncle’s rules to start behaving more ladylike, and keeping a leopard safe, the adventure is fast paced and the story entertaining.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love kids outsmarting adults and saving the day, it makes for good story telling.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I really felt like it was forced.  I truly do not understand why the children needed to take a drugged Lakka to the port and back.  Why not leave him with the new friends and go to the port without him? He is a wild animal, we have been given reasoning for so much of the human animal interactions to be believable, that this seems to be negligent.  So much could have gone wrong and for what? There was no need.  The kids wanting to see punishment handed out is motivation enough for them to make the journey in my opinion.  Sigh, I don’t know that younger kids will be as bothered as I am, but I think fourth graders and up will definitely question it and be confused.  I also don’t know that I have ever seen the sneak peak of another book included at the end, being for a book previously published.  Aren’t they usually for upcoming releases? Either way, it seemed to make the last portion of the book deflate a bit for a story that was engaging, entertaining, and hard to put down until then.

FLAGS:

Lying, poaching, abuse, threats, killing, animal cruelty, bullying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime.  The short chapters have little illustrations above the headings that hint at what is to come, and the writing style is perfect for short blocks of time.

The book is available on Amazon

The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

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The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

This sweet middle grades book about two girls in Ghana is a friendship story and a rags to riches gem.  The 336 pages immerse you in a rich and vibrant culture and share a story that while at times simplistic, really pulls you in and makes the over the top happy ending, tearful and joyful.  I read the entire book in one setting and loved that there was no glossary, or white pandering; the story works in the explanations and details for those unfamiliar with West African cultures to share a story about classism, friendship, growing up, and challenging stereotypes.  I loved while so much was new to me and culture specific, so much, at the same time, was universal and relatable to all.  The story is OWN voice, the main character is a wealthy girl,  but the friend is a poor Muslim one.  I am not sure where the religious representation ended and the cultural practices started, but the book does not criticize any culture or traditions, it only criticizes the mindset that one is superior to another because of where they are from.  I also don’t know that the Muslim character will mirror global Muslim experiences, but having the character identify as Muslim and be such a wise and determined friend, makes her a great character to cheer on and love no matter the reader’s background.  This would be a great book to teach, to shelve, to read aloud, and to discuss.

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen year old Abena is spending her summer with her aunt in Makola market while her mother has traveled to London to give birth.  Abena’s father is a physician and her friends are part of the wealthy and privileged class that attends American schools, vacations abroad, lives in mansions with servants, and have the latest phones.  In a bit of a culture shock spending the weekdays with her aunt at the bustling market, Abena starts to see her country and its people in a different light. One day while getting out of her aunt’s car she makes eye contact with a kayayoo, a porter who carries customers purchases on their head.  She snaps a picture of the girl who appears about her age wearing an orange scarf, as she secretly is working on a journalism competition, and something about the girl intrigues her.  The two smile and carry on.  Later when they meet again they realize they do not share any common languages, they both speak a number of dialects and languages, yet somehow the girls connect.  Day after day they sneak away to have lunch together and learn about one another as they learn each other’s language, culture, history, and dreams.  Faiza opens Abena’s eyes to so much about Ghana that she had never known existed and Abena teaches Faiza English, science, shows her the internet and gives her the foundation for how to read and write.  Abena’s aunty does not approve of their friendship: stereotypes and assumptions about poor Muslims from the North prevent her from treating Faiza as an equal.  Yet, she doesn’t forbid the friendship either.  As the girls’ friendship grows, summer vacation comes to an end and goodbyes will have to be made.  Things get expediated though, in a climax of misunderstandings, regrets, and friendships separated by class and religion.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that right before Abena sneaks Faiza on to the laptop to Google dinosaurs, and the solar system, and cities in Ghana and maps, I was Googling images of geles, okro and Makola market, maps to see where Hausa and Dagomba regions are, and enjoying learning about people because it is so enriching whether fictional or in real life.

I love that there isn’t judgement by either girl on trying to understand why children are given to aunts to raise or why women are forced to marry.  It shows so much without othering any facet of sub culture within Ghana or anywhere for that matter.  Abena’s cousins aren’t put down for being wealthy, or Faiza for being poor.  Even the Haji looking for a fourth wife is not favorable because he is old and has brown stained teeth, not because there is judgement upon him having more than one wife or the family wanting their daughter to marry him.

I often remark that I like middle grade books that don’t tie everything up in a neat and tidy bow, but this book went the other extreme and tied everything up far in to the future, that I ended up loving the extreme nature of it as the tears of joy dripped off my cheeks.  If you are going to do it, do it for a reason, and this book did it to great effect.

Faiza is Muslim she wears hijab and stops Abena from taking it off at one point, but then at the end she has braids hanging out from underneath her scarf.  There are crushes and hugging between Faiza and males and an implied potential romantic relationship between Faiza and a non Muslim male that is never given pause.  A character goes for hajj, it mentions a space that Faiza uses for prayer, and it mentions Faiza’s Muslim family members getting drunk.  Nothing more than these details are given about being Muslim, other than her being labeled as a Muslim and identifying as one.

FLAGS:

Theft, crushes, lying, classism, racism, running away, drinking beer, getting drunk, forced marriage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think that the book would lend itself very easy toward discussion and appreciating a people and culture that for many in the west would be new and unfamiliar.  I think outside research to supplement would be a natural extension and that the characters, their voices, their lives, and experiences, will stay with readers of all ages as we can rest easy knowing that they got their happy endings.

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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At 384 pages, this middle grades book takes on hijab, terrorism, Islamophobia, finding your voice, and fighting back.  At times the book was insightful and smoothly written, at other times the voice seemed childish and the writing directionless.  The inconsistencies don’t ultimately make the book good or bad for me, but rather very forgettable.  I read the book over the span of three days, but honestly remember very little about the book without looking at my notes.  The writing just isn’t particularly strong.  I never connected with the main character, and no it wasn’t because I didn’t agree with her wearing hijab out of solidarity, I accept that people make the decision for a variety of reasons, somehow I just never felt sympathetic to her as a person, or found myself cheering her on.  Her naivety vacillated too much for me to find her believable, and the pacing of the book made it hard to get revved up.  I think upper MG and middle school readers will be a better fit for the book with hate speech, assault, school bans, concert, musical references, and alt right indoctrination.  I think the book is worth shelving in a classroom/school library and I’m considering it for a book club selection, but I’m skeptical that the book would be finished, even if started, by most readers without some incentive to see it through.

SYNOPSIS:

Aaliyah and her friends are at a K-pop concert when a terrorist attack kills and injures numerous people.  A Muslim takes responsibility and with it coming on the heels of numerous London attacks, Islamophobia is at an all time high.  For 13-year-old Aaliyah, it is a stranger yelling at her mother in a parking lot, her best friend Lisa ignoring her, and her brother getting riled up in retaliation, that gets her to wonder why her mother wears hijab, when she started, and decide to start covering herself, in solidarity. As a result for Aaliyah there is now increased bullying at school which results in physical assault, and teachers turning a blind-eye.  It reaches an all time high when a religious display ban goes in to effect.  Still dealing with trauma from witnessing horrific violence, Aaliyah decides to push back.  Finding her inner strength and finding allies in a few good friends, and a secret cat adoption, she finds enough motivation to keep her plugging forward against the growing hate in her world. When she finally finds her voice will it be enough to overturn the ban and save her brother? Nope, not going to spoil it.  The fight is not a one-and-done, as anyone who has gone up against racism and systemic oppression knows, and this fictional book keeps that integrity and doesn’t give a happy ending, but rather hope and motivation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the Islam is centered in a consistent and empowering way.  At times it is a perspective that I’m not completely onboard with, but a few pages later the insight is powerful and the messaging clear.  I found it odd that Aaliyah doesn’t know when her mom started covering or why, or anything about hijab, it comes off very immature. The book keeps culture and religion separate, hijab a choice, and I like that it was Aaliyah who wants to cover even when her parents try to talk/force her out of it.  I find it a little off that she doesn’t go to the mosque, but her father consulted with masjid folks when looking for advice for handling the alt right groups.  She prays a few times in the book and it being mentioned is nice.

I like that the kids in the book think for themselves, and that the adults don’t have all the answers.  I enjoyed the passages asserting why the family came to the UK generations ago and why they have stayed, is powerful.   A few of the characters that are really strong at the start don’t ever get mentioned again.  Which is fine, but I did wonder about Harpreet and why Yusuf’s friends weren’t contacted when Aaliyah was sleuthing about.

Loved the literary shout-outs, and the hypocrisy of allowing swim caps and hats but not hijab, but sigh, didn’t love the cat thread.  I think I just don’t like fictional cats, I sound like a broken record.  I think the inclusion was to show how much Aaliyah had to keep hidden in her life and how she needed comfort, but I don’t know, sigh, I found the contrast of tone jarring to the pacing.

There is a glossary at the end, and the definition of Hijab is a bit odd, highlighting Western and South Asian terminology and not the Middle Eastern or even global use of the Arabic word.  I don’t know that the glossary is even needed as the book really tries to establish that the characters are a part of their society and don’t need footnotes and differential treatment, so the inclusion of a glossary for me, diminished the point a bit.

FLAGS:

Assault, hate speech, bullying, fear, death, injuries, bombing, terrorist attack, lying, music, mention of a transgender/gender neutral student, a rainbow pin. sneaking out.  Criticism of police, alt right indoctrination.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is unique in showing affects of the alt right and not having it all work out in an MG book.  It shows the anxiety and fear that Muslims often feel and the determination of not becoming victims. It also does a good job of showing that something like a religious symbolism ban doesn’t just affect Muslims, but people of various faiths and culture, and thus when common ground is found, there are more allies that one often thinks.  I think it could work for a middle school book club and undoubtedly the discussions would be great, but I am given pause with the main characters view of hijab as not being something in the Quran, but rather done in protest and in solidarity.  I think once I see which kids are interested in book club I can gauge if it is something that we can work through and discuss or not.

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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This 320 page full color middle grade graphic novel is a powerful and moving read. The memoir focuses on the young Syrian boy who began reporting on the war from the perspective of children and sharing his work on social media.  The raw emotion, the determination to make a difference, the familial love, are conveyed in a way that allows eight and nine year old readers to connect to living through horror with compassion and outrage and empathy.  Older readers will also be drawn in and moved by the relatability of a boy their age having his world turned upside down.  I particularly like how the book dispels so many assumptions and stereotypes by showing what life was like before the devastation, a bit about the role of outside forces and political oppression, and really creating a mood where you can imagine what you would do if you were in Muhammad’s situation.  The book is heavy, but also has a lot of hope and and joy. I tend to like nonfiction graphic novels that are character driven like this one.  I find I understand the scope of what they are enduring by seeing it through their eyes and feeling like I know them and thus can better grasp what their reality is.  There are photographs at the end which further connect the readers to Muhammad and Syria, and I hope this book finds its way into classrooms, libraries, homes, and hearts, so that we might be better to one another.  Readers of When Stars are Scattered will similarly love this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book begins with eight-year-old Muhammad hanging around his father’s carpentry shop in Eastern Ghouta, playing soccer and pleading to by treats from the candy seller.  When Assad’s soldiers come, destroy his soccer ball, and his family warns him not to trust anyone, including the new candy seller, Muhammad’s world is suddenly not so certain.  When his family must seek shelter at a moments notice, homework is left, videogames paused, and fear very real.

Muhammad is the miracle child, born after the family didn’t know if they could have any more children, he is the fourth, and spoiled. Even with destruction and sheltering though, there is joy, more children are born in to the family, and while Muhammad’s status might be in question, his love of his little brother and sister, motivate him to do something to create a safer home.

At age 13, his father and uncle go for Jummah salat, and his father is killed while praying.  At 15 Muhammad is done hiding, he knows he will never be safe and he starts filming and sharing stories of children as a way to honor is father and fight back against oppression.

With the support of his family, and constant worry that Assad’s army will target him, Muhammad keeps telling the stories of those with no voice.  Eventually his following grows, catches international attention, and gives Muhammad purpose.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the format for this story, you truly can’t put it down.  It shows the emotion so powerfully that you cry when characters are lost.  You know hundreds die every day, but the singling in on a character that you have grown to love dying moves the reader, add in that you know this was a real person and that Muhammad really endured the loss, and it reminds you of your humanity.  The love the characters all have for their oldest sister is absolutely incredible.  The pages of the family just being so connected are my absolute favorites.

The characters are Muslim and it is a part of their daily lives, there is no pulling out of the narrative and explaining or preaching.  The women wear hijab, they plead with Allah swt, they reflect on Allah’s plan, they go for prayers at the masjid.

FLAGS:

Death, destruction, war, fear. It is not sensationalized, and I truly think middle grade and middle school readers will benefit from reading, even the sensitive ones.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think the book would be wonderful to teach in the classroom tying literature, current events, and history together.  I absolutely think every library, classroom, and home bookshelf should feature this book.

It can be pre-orderd here

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after.  And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read.  The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless.  The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book.  This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.

SYNOPSIS:

Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather.  They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home.  Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four.  He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.

The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated.  Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them.  Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow.  There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.  The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out.  I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are.  They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.

I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story.  There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.

Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering.  This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for.  Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.

The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.

FLAGS:

Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing.  There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th.  Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book.  It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.

It can be preordered here on Amazon

52 Poems for 52 Weeks: A Lunar Year by Abdullah Mansoor

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52 Poems for 52 Weeks: A Lunar Year by Abdullah Mansoor

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This isn’t the typical book I would review, but after spending some time in a middle school language arts classroom teaching this school year, I thought I should at least acknowledge the value a book like this can have in a classroom or homeschool curriculum, and that it shouldn’t be completely overlooked and dismissed.  I didn’t get swept away by any of the poems, and honestly am confused by the title seeing as the title page quickly clarifies that a lunar year is 51 weeks? That being said, poetry is such a religious and cultural staple that haikus, sonnets, acrostic poems, free verse absolutely should be taught through an Islamic lens, and why not.  So, while it might not be a book that an upper elementary through middle schooler would pick up and read on their own, it is structured to be taught, and I think educators should consider implementing it in whole, or in part, when teaching structure, and rhyme scheme, and iambic beats.

The poems vary in style and topic and length, and are divided by the Islamic lunar calendar months written in Arabic calligraphy. The true value of the book is the backmatter, though in my opinion.  The details about the poem, about form and structure and prompts to try your own.

I could really see slipping in an Islamic poem when teaching Shakespearean sonnets, and encouraging children to write a ballad or limerick in praise of an Islamic tenant.  I’m a big fan of blurring what is Islamic and what is secular as I don’t find them mutually exclusive, and this little book did a great job reminding me that Islamic centered poetry is important, and Islamic poetry isn’t just translated from other languages.

Happy reading, and inshaAllah happy writing!  The book can be found HERE for purchase.

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.

Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

nura and the immortal palace

This 272 page unapologetically Muslim MG tale takes on some heavy concepts: child labor, jinn, education, and gulab jamun- I mean greed.  Through the eyes of feisty, determined, clever, and strong Nura, though, the trials of life and society are never without hope, a sense of adventure, and good intentions.  The characters are likeable, the Islam wonderfully present and often centered, the social commentary remarkable, but the framing for me, made it a bit of a struggle to read at times.  It is set up like Alice in Wonderland or even Silverworld, where the characters living in a real world stumble in to an alternate reality, and thus the world building occurs in real-time so to speak.  The reader has no idea what is going on until it is happening, no clue what the rules and constraints of the fantasy world are until some detail is needed to help or hinder the protagonist, and personally I struggle with this wandering style of narrative.  I have mentioned before that as a child I really never read fantasy, and I think this is why, I  need the context to ground the story so that I might lose myself in the adventure at hand.  If you are fine with this framing and at ease with Islamic jinn fantasy, then this book will be a lot of fun.  If you find fantasy “shirk-y” do know that Ayat ul Kursi is used to save the day, but that there is a lot of imagination regarding the beings made of smokeless fire, a casino is present along with dancing, indentured labor, and the fear of death.

The book releases in July 2022, and as always pre-orders help show support for books, authors, and the OWN voice content that they entail, so if this book seems like a good fit for your 3rd/4th grade reader and up you can pre-order it here: https://amzn.to/3MVvxQo

SYNOPSIS:

Nura lives in the small industrial Pakistani city of Meerabagh.  Her father has passed away and her family is too poor to send her to school, instead she must work so that her siblings might eat.  Her mother works in a sweat factory and Nura in the mica mines.  The illegal child labor and cruel owners provide less than ideal working conditions for the children forced to mine the sparkly mineral.  Nura’s mom wants her to quit, Nura herself doesn’t enjoy the torment, but somehow she takes it on as a challenge to be the best miner in Meerabagh, pushing her self deeper into the fragile tunnels.  With bestfriend Faisal always warning her about going too far, she decides to finally listen to her mother and quit the mines, but not after she makes one final effort to find the rumored “Demon’s Tongue” treasure.  She digs too deep though, and the mines collapse, children are lost, Faisal among them. Determined to find her best friend, she plunges in to the fallen mines and finds herself on the pink waters outside the luxurious jinn hotel, the Sijj Palace.

Nura has always been warned about jinn, qareens and the tricks they play on humans, but when a life of luxury is dangled in front of her, Nura pushes her better judgement aside to enjoy a life she has always dreamed of.  It isn’t just the food and clothes, but it is the respect and honor she is given as she wins a food eating contest, gambles in a casino, and gets decorated for a dance party.  It all comes crashing down however, when in an attempt to impress the painted boy, she cuts off his horn.  Status revoked, Nura is sent to the labor force, where she will remain for eternity, imprisoned and at the disposal of the hotel.  What is more, after the three day festival of Eid al Adha, her memories of her life before coming to the jinn world will disappear. Nura is determined to escape, but nothing in the jinn world is easy, and for a 12 year old girl with fading memories, this might be more than she can endure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nura is unapologetically Muslim.  Even though she is poor, there is time spent on the pages detailing the feeling of Eid al Adha, the familial togetherness and community festiveness even if it all is meager, it still has value.  I also really like the relationship between Nura and Faisal.  They drive each other crazy and have nothing in common, but they never give up on each other.  They act like siblings, tolerating each other’s annoying quirks, while never wavering on their concern and worry for one another.  It is sweet and well fleshed out.

The threading of education was also done well.  Nura finds the idea of school repulsive, but it grows and changes as the obstacle of being illiterate slows her down, and ultimately she changes her mind.  The growth arc is subtle, but powerful, and Nura’s intellect, cleverness, and ingenuity is never dimmed as a result of her lack of formal schooling.

The characters, even the “bad” ones are given some depth and sympathetic qualities, and Nura has to recognize some of her own flaws and choices as she journeys through the book.  Desi culture is present primarily in food and clothing, but it adds depth to the story and flavor to the experience.

The food eating competition, however, didn’t really impress me.  I get that it was to flesh out the jinn world and show Nura’s smartness, but I thought the jinn in the water were eaten, only to have them reappearing, and the founding premise is that jinn are tricksters, so to have Nura tricking them seems to blur the lines of integrity.  Also the bird was critical, and then never seen again, the scene just didn’t read as tightly edited or as clear as it should have in my opinion.

I didn’t love that a casino either, or that it was so central to the story. If it would have said something about gambling being haram and jinn being free to do what they want, like it did when discussing how Eid is celebrated by non practicing jinn, I might have not been as bothered,  but it seems an odd setting nonetheless, for a middle grade book.

FLAGS:

Gambling, child labor, indentured servitude, magic, fantasy, jinn, destruction, bombing, fire, death, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this could work as a middle school book club read.  It is a little below level and age, but there is a lot to discuss and connect with, that I think it would be a lot of fun.  Our school is ok with fantasy reads, so for us it definitely deserves a place on the bookshelf in a classroom, school library, and possibly (depending on your views of fantasy) a home library.

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

wonders we seek

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.