Category Archives: middle grades

My Garden Over Gaza by Sarah Musa illustrated by Saffia Bazlamit

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My Garden Over Gaza by Sarah Musa illustrated by Saffia Bazlamit

This book is hard to read, it hurts the heart, it doesn’t let you claim ignorance regarding the plight of Palestinians, and it shows cruelty,  a specific inexcusable cruelty, in a children’s book that will haunt you and infuriate you for weeks and months, if not indefinitely.  I’ve read a number of Palestine set books, but this one, in its simplicity, leaves me raw.  A child with a rooftop garden that helps feed her family is deliberately targeted by Israeli drones and destroyed.  This isn’t science fiction or dystopian, this is based on real acts.  The book itself threads in themes of hope, of not giving up, of remembering strength of a lost parent, of vowing to move forwards, but the catalyst for it all is not happenstance, and while the details of the occupation and oppression are not stressed and articulated, they are referenced and skillfully present to be discussed with children on their level with the included backmatter at the end.  This book is powerful and should be required reading. It is a difficult read and it has flags, but it is also a glimpse of the reality of our world, and the manner in which this book is told allows for the discussion to taken place with middle grade readers and up. The book is not text heavy, but the nature of the content makes me suggest it for mature children.

Noura, a young girl, is in her home in Gaza when drones are seen just out the window and she quickly pulls her little brother Esam away to safety.  To distract him she tells him about their father and his farm that he used to have in Umm An-Naser.  She explains how the wall cut them off from their land and when the drone noises fade, she takes him up to her rooftop garden to pick green beans.  Their mama works downstairs as a seamstress, and while they wish they had meat, the garden helps them have fresh vegetables.

The next day after Noura gets her little brother ready for the day they head to the roof, but drones arrive and start spraying chemicals on the growing plants, killing them, and sending Noura gasping to breathe.  She tries to cover the plants and swing a shovel at the drone, but it does little to save any of the food and Noura is devastated.

Noura’s mama reassures her daughter that the food can be regrown, but she is irreplaceable, as Noura goes to scrub the chemicals from her skin.  The frustration is real, but determination prevails as the family cleans the garden and begins again, just as their father did.

The last two page spread of the book is a basic map, general touchstones of the situation in Palestine, and the very real drones that fly in to Gaza to surveil, attack, and spray herbicides on crops. You can purchase a copy on the publisher’s website or HERE at Crescent Moon Store.

An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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I truly am glad I read this book. I love historical fiction, visiting Spain is on my bucket list, this book has a map, details about what is historical what is fiction, has Islam woven in to the heart and soul of the story and characters, and yet it was a hard read.  The first few pages grip you, the last 50 bring it all together, but the middle 250 were hit and miss in this lower YA/upper MG book.  I honestly had to force myself to keep reading.  My teen and tween son couldn’t get past 38 pages or so, and I’ve asked around and no one I know that started the book, finished it.  I think ultimately there are just too many characters, too many points of view, that even though the history is rich, the literary points all in order, their isn’t enough character connection to hold the readers through the wandering details.  This author’s style is a bit more slow, but I think in the House of Ibn Kathir series, the setting of being in school and having friend problems is relatable to readers; boarding horses on to a boat, deciding to wage war, and going in to battle are not familiar concepts, and without the emotional connection it loses momentum.  The climax is nice but ultimately rather lackluster, and the beauty of characters taking shahada, Jews being freed, Solomon’s table, an old lady with a premonition, and a character dying are just not enough to keep the story in reader’s hands, unfortunately. 

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SYNOPSIS:

The summary might make the book seem fast paced, and while it does constantly move forward to a clear destination, it isn’t a “buckle your seatbelt and hang on” type of story.  The setting is Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, 92 years after the Hijrah.  The book opens with two young siblings Ben and Bella, overlooking the coast, dreading their lives under Visigoth oppression, and hiding their Jewish culture and faith.  It then jumps to the Governor of Ceuta, Count Julian (Ilyan), awaiting to meet with Umayyad leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad.  He is hoping to rescue his daughter from the court of King Roderick and convince the Muslim General to enter Iberia, restore the rightful king, and free the people essentially.  Add in voices from Qasim, a young Berber, and Jacob a captured Iberian, and the stage is set to get everything in order to cross the straights, survey the enemy, take on the King, and introduce Islam to the new land.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the Islam and the history and the fictional liberties.  I love that the book is clean, although, I do wonder if more information about Lady Florinda would have helped the reader understand her father’s desperation, I do understand the vagueness, but it is a glaring omission that keeps the reader curious.  Ultimately I wanted more backstory.  The little given about the characters was engaging.  I loved the teasing about being a shepherd, Jacob coming to love Islam, Bella not wanting to marry, but it seemed to always stop short of sweeping me away.  I didn’t cry (SPOILER) when Hisham died, I barely knew him.  I didn’t feel the urgency to hide and escape from Leander’s proposal.  It set up to add depth regarding Old Mother Magda, the Cave of Secrets, and the unverified death of the king, but after being stated it was never mentioned again or resolved for any real purpose. 

All that aside, I think the book has value, it is just really dry in spots, a lot of spots, and given the vocabulary, the changing narrators, the choppiness between chapters, and the history, it is hard to keep reading or be anxious to pick up once you have put it down.  So with all that in mind, I think the book would be great to use in a classroom setting.  You could read a chapter Monday, and then pick it back up on Thursday and not worry that no one remembers anything because it is focusing on new characters anyway.  In a middle school, or upper elementary the book would be a great crossover between History, English, and Islam classes. The book would naturally lend itself to the students keeping character journals, the supplements and backmatter would allow for references and insight in to real history, and I think the book would do really well in this set up to connect with the audience. 

The Epilogue was nice, but a little disjointed.  I appreciated the updates on the characters and it showing Muslims and people of other faiths coexisting and being accepting even within families, but the connection to the story was a little lost.  Similarly, I love that it mentioned  Abbas Ibn Firnas, but I don’t know that most kids know enough about him to know what is being hinted at and what the outcome was of his flight at the end.

FLAGS:

Death, war, battles, killing, nothing graphic, very tame, not graphic or detailed gore.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I could get middle school students to read the book for a book club, it would have to be motivated by a grade to get through it in a classroom setting I’m afraid.  See above to read my thoughts on how to present it.

I purchased my book on Amazon and will receive a few pennies if you decide to purchase a copy using this link.

Connecting with Allah: A Treasury of Poems by Mona Zac illustrated by Neamah Aslam

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Connecting with Allah: A Treasury of Poems by Mona Zac illustrated by Neamah Aslam

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Similar to Call Me By My Name, this book stands out in highlighting the Names of Allah swt.  In this collection it is the descriptive poetry, warm illustrations, urge to reflect and act, and space to think through and write up your own du’as that make this book so versatile.  I can see a middle grade to middle schooler using the book almost like a journal, just as easily as I can see an Islam teacher using the book to teach the names of Allah and have their students ponder and write their own verses.  I plan to use it with my own children when we gather up for salat-waiting for everyone to make wudu- to read a poem, discuss, and understand each name on whatever level the child is at thus bring the names of Allah swt, into our daily awareness, inshaAllah.

The book is divided into sections following a heading and seasonal imagery: Loving Allah, Asking Allah, Knowing Allah, and Blooming with Allah’s names.  The table of contents is out of order, but it isn’t an issue.  Poems are given a two page spread, some poems are one name, others are two.  At the end of each poem is a “Reflect and Act” section with bulleted items to help connect the name and the poem’s content with one’s own life and Islamic principles.

At the end of each section are two pages to write your own du’as using Allah’s names followed by Sources from the Qur’an and Hadith.  The illustrations are adorable to look at, and while on first glance the collection might seem more female appealing, I think boys and girls alike will benefit from time spent with the book and not find it targeting to only one gender.

The Asking Allah section features easy to read Arabic with harakat and even the English font is very appealing and easy to read.  Overall the hard bound book is beautiful and I hope to see it stocked in more places, hint hint Crescent Moon.  Currently in the US it is available here by the publisher.

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The Glass Witch by Lindsay Puckett

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The Glass Witch by Lindsay Puckett

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Another Scholastic published book that I genuinely cannot understand why the author forced a Muslim character to be a part of, and no it isn’t just a token hijab on a character named Fatima.  It mentions she goes to the mosque, there is a Quran on the book shelf, her parents don’t understand her obsession with monsters, she is desi, and there is Urdu in the text as well.  This isn’t me just doubling down on Halloween being a pagan holiday that I’m against, this book is about witches and magic and while it does take place on Halloween, and the witches are Good(e), it is their last name, it is a weird inclusion flex for me.  The book also has the Muslim grandpa crushing on the grandma witch, he even kisses her hand and they are revealed to be soul mates.  There is evil possession, different men that could be the protagonists father, killing, and a pageant.  The book has good qualities- positive body size messaging, focus on family love, self acceptance, and is fast paced and entertaining, but even as a parent that lets my kids read fantasy books, and books that mention Halloween, this book went too far for me.  It normalizes Muslims being ok with magic, it isn’t world building and fantasy, it is very much the real world with sihr characters and practices. It positions the parents as being loving when they come around to accept their daughter’s love of monsters, it also seems to normalize men and women relationships, and for a middle grade 224 page book I just can’t support a Muslim character’s role in such a story. 

I know sometimes I’m ok with magic in books, this one just seems a bit intense, we might just have to agree to disagree if you feel differently, and I’ll own my possible inconsistency in the matter as well.

SYNOPSIS:

Adelaide is heading to her grandma’s house with her mom, and being dropped off for three months- abandoned is more like it. The family dynamic is stressed even on a good day, and today is not a normal day.  The Goode family of witches are all that remain of the witches in the town and more than three can not exist within town lines.  Additionally, if at least one witch is not always in Cranberry Hollow, all the magic will be lost.  Adelaide, doesn’t have magic though, toss in that she is a bigger girl than most other twelve year olds, and that she never feels like she is enough, and the bees within her are buzzing. 

The plan was to drop off Addie and head out of town.  The neighbors, Hakeem and his granddaughter Fatima show up though, and before Candice can sneak out, she finds herself heading to the Cranberry Hollow Halloween Festival with Fatima, Addie, and her mom.  The town loves the Goodes, they help crops grow better, cancer to be cured, and so much more.  Of course they don’t know that they are witches, but they know that they are helpful.  When the time to leave arrives, Aunt Jodie stays on the other side of the town line and they prepare to say their goodbyes and keep the fourth Goode outside the imaginary line, but Addie in a last ditch attempt to make her mother notice her, pulls her mother back across and thus sets off the curse of having too many witches in the town.  The hated Hern family is going to be possessed, and Addie will be hunted come midnight on Halloween.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is intense and scary at times, just toeing the line of what a MG reader can handle, I just don’t get the Muslim character.  It really seems intentional and thought out, and I would love to find out why it was a conscious choice.  There is a small passage equating Addie standing out because of her size with Fatima and her hijab, but I can’t imagine that is enough of a reason to have a practicing Muslim loving Monster hunter in the book.  I know we want representation, but this didn’t work for me, and while I know others are ok with Halloween and some with sihr in a fictional sense, having a Quran on a shelf above the book of monsters and jinn that the Nana has collected, just rubs me the wrong way.  The book is published by Scholastic and will undoubtedly be in book order offerings and in book fairs, and if you are ok with it for your children, that is your choice, I just feel obligated to share my concerns so that you can decide what is best for your family.

FLAGS:

Magic, witches, curses, killing, death, Halloween, crushes, romance, kiss on the hand, premarital sex not detailed (two options at least for who Addie’s father is), cigarette smoking, bullying, mention of a kid at the festival with two dads.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t shelve the book in an Islamic school library or classroom.  I would also pull it from a Scholastic Book Fair display at our Islamic school.

Heroes Like Us: Two Stories by Onjali Q. Raúf

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Heroes Like Us: Two Stories by Onjali Q. Raúf

So this book is a little unique in that it is two stories, and The Great Food Bank Heist, one of the stories, has already been published, and the other story is a bit of an epilogue to The Boy at the Back of the Class.  So, I’m just going to review the first story in the book, The Day We Met the Queen, and while you probably can get away with not reading The Boy at the Back of the Class first, I wouldn’t want you to.  It is such a good book and you really should read it, everyone should. Yes, it is that good. So back to The Day We Met the Queen, the first story in the upcoming middle grade 176 page book, about refugees and kids making a difference.

SYNOPSIS:

This charming story shows what happens to Alexa and Ahmet and the whole crew as they prepare to met the Queen for tea.  The group of friends is about to show the entire school their invitations and share the two questions each that they plan to ask the monarch, the list was 52 questions, but because the Queen is nearly 100 years old, they have been advised to shorten the list.  On the day of the assembly news crews are present and Brenden-the-Bully is acting a little strange, as Ahmet starts talking the auditorium erupts with stink bombs and everyone leaves running.  The kids think it is just the bully striking again, but the gossip at the school and reports on the news imply it might be more than that, and the kids might not make it to the Queen’s tea after all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love getting some closure on the story, while simultaneously showing that refugee treatment and rights is not a thing yet resolved.  The idea of the Queen being at the center of the book definitely adds to the coincidental timeliness of it all, but that she is easy going and relatable to the children is still the takeaway whether you were a fan of the real Queen or not.  I love the voice of the protagonist and the relatability that her concerns are with the target audience. I particularly enjoy the critique about the media and the clarity in which the children understand the flaws and limitations of what they are told in the news both on the school level and on a global stage.  There isn’t anything Islamic in the text, Ahment is Muslim, as is the author.

FLAGS:

Hate speech, deception, bullying

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is an author that brings big real issues to children’s stories as well or as consistently as Onjali Rauf. Both stories in this book should be shared with middle grade readers and up to be discussed, reflected upon, and learned from as often as possible.  You can preorder your copy here: https://amzn.to/3Eq2G4M

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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We are All We Have by Marina Budhos

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We are All We Have by Marina Budhos

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In many ways this book reads like a reboot of the author’s 2007 book Ask Me No Questions, there are sprinkled in references to Islamic culture, but nothing about the characters or the author truly show the book to be a Muslim story, or Islam centered.   Much like Ask Me No Questions, the book is told through a female protagonist who is forced to figure out why a parent is detained, what to do now that they are on their own with a sibling, and figuring out why they are being forced to leave America if they are not undocumented, but asylum seekers.  And much like that book, the protagonist is really whiney, entitled, and annoying, as is the mother.  This 256 page middle school/young YA read draws drama from the 2019 Muslim ban and ICE raids, but is more a character based plot than a political focused telling.  Because of the similarities to the earlier published book, and the lack of Islam in the text, and being unclear regarding the faith of the author, I’m just going to write a quick review and move on. The book is a quick read it has flashbacks to Pakistan and in those scenes mentions mosques, Eid, and Ramadan in passing. A few cultural side characters mutter an inshaAllah on occasion and there is a clear #muslimintheillustrations like side character that is remarked to wear a scarf on her head named Amirah, but is barely in the story.  Worth being aware of for younger readers is romance, kissing, making out, between Rania and Carlos, and *SPOILER* that the mother left her husband for another man years earlier.

SYNOPSIS:

Rania is weeks away from high school graduation when an ICE raid casts a wide net and picks up her mother as collateral.  Rania has always known they check in regularly to appeal their status, but with her journalist father killed years earlier in Pakistan, the family fled to America for safety, Kamal was even born in America, it has never been a concern.  As her mother gets taken away, Rania starts to wonder about the secrets her mother has always kept and the truth starts to unravel.  In the process though, protective services takes her and her brother to a shelter where they meet Carlos and escape.  Once on the run, they attend Rania’s graduation, spend months on Cape Cod, gain protection from a congregation at a synagogue all while trying to piece together Rania’s truth.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it touches on the Muslim Ban and the fear that gripped the nation for anyone in the process of being a citizen or trying to travel to the flagged countries.  I wish it would have actually spent a bit more time on that.  The title of the book makes it sound like the family is completely alone and isolated, yet, they are constantly surrounded by people that are looking out for them and sympathetic in their choice not to ask too many questions.  I struggled with liking Rania, when you write a book about people that may or may not have broken a law, regardless of if you agree with the law or not, you really have to make it compelling. You have to get behind the character and their motives, and I never did.  I did not understand why she for example finally finds her uncle or an aunt and doesn’t demand answers, it is like, I’m tired, I’ll nap and we will talk later, no, not believable.  Additionally, I could not get a feel for the younger brother, I get that he is sheltered, but he reads like he is four years old, not that he is in second grade at best, I think he might be in fourth.  Really all over the place.  And the Rania and Carlos relationship, should have stayed awkward.  They at times are like siblings, and when the line is crossed, Carlos even remarks on it, and I think having it be weird, but clear that they have a bond, would have been a much stronger choice.  A lot of the plot holes make the story drag such as what was the problems at the bank for the uncle, but because it is short, I think older readers will get through it. I don’t think I’d suggest anyone read the book, but it isn’t so awful that I would warn too harshly against it.   The characters don’t identify or act Muslim, so when they kiss or lie, it isn’t a reflection on the religion.

FLAGS:

Kissing, lying, running away, making-out. Muslim friend sneaking out, drinking, partying, stereotypical oppressive Muslim dad and meek mom.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would throw the book out, but I wouldn’t actively seek to acquire it to shelve either.

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.