Category Archives: Middle School

Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi

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Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi

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I began reading this book not having any idea what it was about. All I knew, or all I cared to know, was that the incredibly amazingly talented Reem Faruqi wrote it, so I wanted to read it. While I know it will be hard for most to avoid knowing the plot, I think it was a blessing that I was able to be swept away so completely and so fully in a story that is wonderful and memorable, and truly sets a higher standard for the way that a story can be told. Faruqi’s voice and authenticity had me in tears. I didn’t even realize my eyes were dripping until my son asked me if I was ok. It wasn’t the plot that had my emotions spilling over, sure it helped, but it was the storytelling, the hadith and deen and snapshot of a life so unlike my own that simultaneously is exactly my own that a physical reaction emerged. It is the power of OWN voice storytelling. It is the power of brilliant writing. It is not just a book about a Muslim character, this book blurs the lines for me between Islamic fiction and fiction with Muslim characters. Middle school readers (mature middle grade readers) will enjoy the book, older readers will enjoy and appreciate the 336 page story told in verse. You can pre-order the book and I hope you will, it helps convey the message to publishers that this book is highly anticipated and that we need voices like this. Additionally, Goodreads currently is hosting a giveaway, you can head there to try and win a free copy.

(If you don’t want to know what the story is about, maybe skip the next section.)

SYNOPSIS:

Aafiyah’s name means well-being, protection, health, money, happiness, everything good, but Aafiyah has secrets too. She is privileged and loved, and she knows it, but sometimes when she sees something she likes she accidentally borrows it. Sometimes it isn’t an accident. Sometimes she doesn’t just borrow. Much of her life is wonderful, a best friend that lives next door, doting parents, tennis, vacations, trips to Pakistan to visit grandparents, and a love of “weird but true facts.” So what happens when all that changes. When her grandfather gets sick and the family wants to bring him to America for treatment, when Aafiyah’s dad gets detained and imprisoned on the way home, and Aafiyah’s secret may be a way to help her family?

WHY I LIKE LOVE IT:

I absolutely love that the characters are so well rounded and developed. Yes, Muslims have vices, and even young practicing Muslims have tests and struggles. The bar has been raised, we aren’t just a monolith, and our only struggles aren’t girl/boy issues, alcohol, not being oppressed and getting an education, we are complex people, we are human. The bulk of the story is Aafiyah growing up: her responsibility within her family, her changing body and appearance, her friendships, her responsibility for her actions, her desire to want to help and improve and step in to her own. I love that all these layers of life somehow are explored in such sparse lines. It doesn’t drag, but it gives the necessary pauses to involve the reader in her logic and view of the world. Aafiyahs’ kleptomaniac tendencies, her father being detained, her grandfather’s illness. they all move the story along, but they are foils for a much more intimate character story. A story that is surprisingly funny and light and impossible to put down.

I absolutely love how Islam is woven in, how she exudes Islam in all that she is, because she is a Muslim completely, the good and the bad. The guilt she feels, the desperation to be forgiven, the knowing that Allah swt sees all. The book is never even close to being preachy, but she proudly owns her identity and the details of her faith are not watered down, or even justified, it is who she is and it isn’t up for debate.

Culture is presented unapologetically as well. She is critical of things she sees in Pakistan, and similarly celebrates and admires good things about Pakistan and Pakistani culture. The book does not seem to have an agenda in presenting Muslims or Pakistan as good or bad, just as Aafiyah sees them. Which isn’t revolutionary on the surface, but it really is refreshing because it highlights how many books simply don’t. It makes the contrast painfully obvious between books that are shy about certain things, when they have their characters deflect and disassociate from certain “realities” and books that confidently uphold their identity and demand that the reader steps up and truly see the characters and their experiences.

There is a beautiful and raw author’s note at the end that shares some of the inspiration for the threads of the book, a glossary, a recipe for Aloo Gosht and resources for help with kleptomania.

FLAGS:

Stealing, lying, chatter about crushes, music, dancing. Being attractive and the reactions that it gets is woven through out.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I have a majority girl group, I will teach this. It isn’t a girl only book, but I think some of the more subtle themes would need a safer girl space to discuss.

The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

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Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

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A mix of information and entertainment, this 124 page comic book is divided into thematic sections which further break down in to mini-episodes or comic strips that feature a situation, an Islamic advice often based on a Hadeeth or Quranic ayat that is noted, and a misinterpretation taken to a comical extreme. The book is a great way to remind ourselves and children, middle grades and up, aspects of our faith that we might know, or introduce us to specifics that we should know, by showing the concept in exaggerated action. Because the examples are relatable and come from everyday life, the humor is that much more enjoyable, and as a result makes the “lessons” that much more memorable.

The three sections cover topics included in 1: Muslim Identity/Mindset, 2: Habits/Lifestyle, and 3: Adhkaar/Prayer, after an introduction of the characters, and the magic of the ‘Aalim Hat are explained, the stories begin. They are not sequential and can be read in any order, and are about four to 10 pages each. The book surprisingly does a good job of not getting overly predictable. Even though you know something is going to be taken incorrectly or to the extreme, it doesn’t drag on or get redundant. At times Ayye, is overly preachy, ok, all the time, but the persona is intentional and reads intentional, as his grounding of events is actually the point of the book.

The illustrations are clear and enjoyable. They are expressive and easy to follow. The glossy pages and full color print help keep the readers, especially the younger ones, tuned in to what the lesson is, and what silliness is ensuing. The hardbound 6 x 9 book is great to have around where it can be picked up and thumbed through. I read the entire thing in one setting, as did my 12 and 14 year old, and all of us have subsequently picked it up and flipped through it to muse over sections once again. A few of the pages seem to bleed into the binding and require some effort to see the cut off text, hopefully the book will have multiple reprints and this can be rectified. If you don’t follow the author on Instagram you should @LalaArtwork.

It is important to note that I am not a scholar, or anywhere remotely qualified to opine on the authenticity or interpretation of the points given in the book. The hadeeth are sourced, stating if it is a Saheeh hadith or found in Bukhari or Muslim for example or who narrated it. And ayats from the Quran tell the surah and verse. They are sourced when stated, there is not a bibliography at the end.

Potential concerns in the book: it does show a Muslim celebrating halloween and birthdays in a comic about Eid. In an episode about being strangers in this duniya, it mentions drinking and clubbing and nudity, boyfriends, etc. as things to avoid in this world. There is hyperbole and revenge, and bad judgement, but it is all in fun to make clear Islamic points and I think children nine and up will have no trouble understanding what is real and what is exaggerated, inshaAllah.

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

img_8794There is a reason that this 93 page graphic novel is labeled as “Teens.”  There may only be 300 or so words in the entire book, and the pictures at times are very basic, but oh subhanAllah is it devastating. Real, unfortunately, but I was not expecting my heart to be shredded and for me to be haunted by the framing and perspective of the story.  I read a fair amount of books both fiction and nonfiction regarding Syrian refugees and I try not to ever become numb to the plight of so many, but this book was such a reminder that things don’t always turn out well, that sometimes no matter how inspired your life is to follow in the footsteps of a warrior queen, there isn’t always hope.  That no matter how brave you are, horrible things will still happen, and that sometimes there is no one to hear your cries and pleas, and for so many in this cruel world, there is only silence.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Amina on a crowded makeshift book in the ocean, the boat capsizes and we are thrust back in to her memories of playing hide-and-seek with her mother.  The juxtaposition of her little body playing a game hoping not to be found with her limp body in the ocean begging to be found is stark.  The memories then take us back to her mom preparing dolmas with only rice and salt, since that is all that is left.  Her father jokes that they are too salty.  The ocean is salty as well, and the memories continue to flow.  Her parents go to the market and she is not able to go with them.  It doesn’t tell why, but her mother reminds her to be strong and brave like Zenobia. Her mother often reminds her of the Syrian warrior queen who was the most beautiful woman in the whole world, who ruled, fought, and rode like a man.

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Her parents don’t return.  She waits and waits.  There are attacks, an uncle comes to take her away.  They pass destruction and rubble and sleep in the road.  Her body starts to sink in the water.  Her uncle finds some fisherman, he gives them all his money, but it is only enough for one to go on the boat.  He sends her. A kind lady on the boat shares a bit of food, before the boat flips over.  Her body is lost in the ocean, hoping to be found, voiced only as a whisper inside her head.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I really don’t like it.  That isn’t to say it isn’t well done and powerful.  It is hard to finish though.  You really hope she will be plucked out of the water even though a part of you know she won’t.  I made me kids read it.  It rocked them.  In a good way I think, I hope.  We can never forget how privileged we are, although we do all the time.  Books like this remind us how quickly it can all change and how we at the bare minimum need to be acutely aware of what others go through.  If it is hard to read, imagine living it.

The book is Danish, I don’t know if it is translated or originally in English.  It says that it won the Danish National Illustration Award in 2017, so I’m not sure how much to critique phrasing, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how Zenobia was presented as riding, leading, and ruling like a man.  I’m pretty sure she did those things better than MOST men.  Having her stature be glorified as being that equal to a man weakened her and her accomplishments.  Yes, doing what she did at a time when many women were not allowed to do it is impressive, but she was great in her own right, not just in comparison to the male gender.

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FLAGS:

For teens nothing. For younger kids, under 10, it is subtle, but too devastating in my opinion.  Tweens should read it with some discussion, they should know it isn’t always happy and hopeful, but use your discretion if they can handle a drowning, loss of parents, and destruction.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short for a book club, but I think families should consider it and talk about it.  Syria and many other nations may not be headline news at the moment in America, but that doesn’t mean wars and their far reaching implications have stopped.  It just means we have grown weary and changed the channel.

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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At 224 pages, this graphic novel tells an important OWN voice story in beautiful and powerful illustrations, but despite reading it multiple times, I ultimately found the pacing off, the narrative and plot holes quite large, and the conclusion too forced.  It claims to be for middle grades which would explain the happy ending, but the assault, trauma, mental health, Bengali history, language, and protagonists age (13), make it more suited for upper middle school readers.  I read a digital ARC in predominately black and white images, so I’m hopeful that part of the problem is on me, and that I simply missed or misunderstood parts that seemed to jump around and assume, or that because it was an uncorrected proof, some revisions are still to come.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nisrin is 13 and lives in Oregon with her mother, and maternal grandparents.  Her mom travels a lot and she seems to spend most of her time with her loving Nani, grandmother.  The story opens with Nisrin in 8th grade giving a presentation about her Bangladeshi heritage to her school.  On the way home with a friend, Firuzeh, she is still wearing the cultural clothing and they are playing around with the scarf, when they are violently attacked and the scarf is ripped off of Nisrin’s head.  Her hair is pulled out in the process and the two girls are taken to the hospital and when released maintain professional counseling to process and deal with the assault.  Nisrin fears leaving her house and is increasingly isolated within her home.

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Over the summer we see her and her Nani go over to some cousin’s house where Nasrin is gawked at with her short hair and everyone is unsure how to act around her.  She joins some cousins playing video games where she asks about a cousin in hijab who says that it is essentially her choice between her and Allah (swt), that it isn’t any one else’s business.  A younger cousin tells that she plans to start hijab soon and is surprised to learn that Nisrin’s mom is not Muslim.

As summer comes to an end, Nisrin will be starting high school and exits her room the night before wearing a hijab, or in Bengali, an orna.  Her family freaks out, her Nana, maternal grandfather, is furious claiming that she should have been raised better, and Nisrin is scooted off to her room by her Nani, so that her mom and grandfather can argue.

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On the first day of school, Nisrin tries to talk to Firuzeh, but once again things are awkward between the two girls.  A teacher refuses to try and say Nisrin’s name and becomes angry and aggressive, and at PE she is called a slut and asked if she will be beat for showing her legs.  Nisrin goes home to research Islam and hijab, but everything is so angry and opinion based that she is more confused than when she started.

The next day she meets a nice girl, Veronica, and the two work on an assignment in class and then have lunch together.  Veronica suggests that Nisrin learns about Islam like she would a school assignment and go research it at the library.  Later at home, Nisrin starts to understand what her grandparents and mother saw and endured in the war of 1971 when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.  Her mom and Nana argue over what was seen and Nisrin starts to find her voice in her family.

Nani takes Nisrin shopping for long sleeved clothes and scarves, things are worked out with Firuzeh and Nisrin’s family accepts that Nisrin is not asking permission to wear her scarf, but is hoping they will accept it.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is such a flip on the over-used-stereotype that Muslim girls are forced to wear hijab, in truth many are encouraged not to.  At one point Nisrin says, “If I can’t be safe…then can’t I at least be proud.”  She was attacked for just playing with a scarf and putting it on her head, so she reasons, that there is not safety from racism and hate, she might as well be proud of who she is.  I also love the strength in the idea that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission, it is her faith, her head, her choice.

There is a lot of good in the book, but I struggled understanding quite a bit of it.  It mentions that she was at Texas and she loved it, but there was bullying? No idea what it was in reference to or what purpose it served.  At the beginning the two girls seem like they have been friends for a while, but yet Nisrin warns Firuzeh that her Nani will force her to eat.  Nisrin seems to really love her sleep overs, and I don’t know if it is just to show at the end the healing by coming full circle, but it seems a bit juvenile to be that excited about it to me.

The family dynamic and history, left me very confused.  Nisrin doesn’t know her cousin wears hijab, and is confused that her aunt doesn’t.  Nor do her cousins know that Nisrin’s mom isn’t Muslim?  These cousins call Nisrin’s Nani, Dadi, and since there is no father in the picture it is obvious to even none desi folk that these cousins are related through the mom’s family and the cousins father, so why when Nisrin decides to wear hijab is the maternal side so upset? Why does Nasrin’s mom ask if her cousins have put her up to it? Ok if the mom isn’t religious, but does she actively practice another faith? Why in one of the portraits on the wall does the woman seem to have a bindhi? The Bangladesh independence admittedly is something I should know more about, but I don’t, and this book, didn’t really fill me in.  How is the grandfather both siding? He doesn’t like invader nationalism, but I still don’t completely understand why he left, and what that solved.

The pacing and tone at times are off too me too.   I didn’t feel the strain on Nisrin and Firuzeh’s relationship, the text suggests that they are and were best friends, but when Veronica asks if Nisrin’s stress is in part to the cute girl she was staring down, I was curious too if there was more to their relationship.  A lot seems to happen between the attack and Nisrin starting to wear hijab and I wish we were allowed inside Nisrin’s head to know how she feels about her mom, her nana, starting high school, her attack, her desire to wear hijab, it seems a bit rushed.  Which is odd since, the story spends a few pages detailing when Nisrin feels like everyone hates her after Nani picks her up on the first day of school and Nani points out that not everyone hates her, the squirrels don’t, and the dogs don’t, etc..  It seems really childish for the incredible ordeal she has been through.

I like the informative section at the end about Bangledesh. I wish the book would have shared some of what Nisrin learned about Islam in her own research, she goes to the mosque, but doesn’t detail if she plans to pray regularly, fast, etc..

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FLAGS:
Language, violence, war imagery, rape mentioned, physical assault. Use of the word slut.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this would work for a middle school book club at an Islamic School, graphic novels are often to quick of reads, but I have a few friends from Bangladesh and I really want them, and their daughters, to read it and clue me in to what I am missing, their view of independence and their impression of the book.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

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This 310 page, AR 5.4 biography reads like a dream being remembered and flowing with newly awakened images presented in a lyrical way. The changes in point of view and writing style keep the book bouncing like a boxing match, and flesh out the early life of Muhammad Ali for middle grade readers.  Only at the very end does it mention that he changed his name when he converted to The Nation of Islam, it doesn’t detail much about it, and it doesn’t mention his eventual conversion to Islam, even though it does mention him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his death.  I understand that the book focuses on his preteen and teen years, but it seems like The Awakening of Malcolm X also intentionally cut that footnote out of the book, and having read that book a few weeks ago, it seems a deliberate exclusion in both cases and that bothers me.  It could be coincidence, as both 2020 published middle grade coming of age books have familial support in the writing and research, admittedly it just might be my timing of reading them makes it seem that something larger is at play.  Ultimately, this book gives insight into who Cassius Clay was, and what his life and friend circle looked like as a boy in Kentucky. The verse and flow of the text make the book an easy and enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

Lucky is Muhammad Ali’s friend growing up and is the narrating voice that sets up each chapter and overall framing of the book.  The bookish friend is a writer and eventually a journalist that moves the story forward.  The verses that follow each intro are the imagined voice of Muhammad Ali.  There is a bibliography at the back, but the story starts with this warning, or disclaimer, or wink of sorts:

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The book opens with Lucky and the Clay family waiting for the phone to ring in 1958 to find out if Cassius has won in Chicago.  He is there fighting for the National Golden Gloves.  He eventually loses the tournament, but he doesn’t stay down.  The book then rewinds and starts back before Cassius ever enters the ring.  The reader gets to know about Granddaddy Herman and the bond that the two share.  He is Cassius’s church and source of pride.  We also learn about how Cassius sees the world and the racism that exists in it. His humbleness and frustration with seeing how hard his mom has to work for so little reward.  We see how his friends shape him, but more importantly how he shapes them, and we see how although he struggles in school how he is articulate and respectful and beloved by so many.  His younger brother is a constant in the story, as is the narrator Lucky.  The book gets inside the character Cassius and if you didn’t know it was a biography, you would think it was a fictional coming of age book.  The ups and downs, the setbacks, the frustrations, the dreams, it all flows and makes you feel for this determined kid, who despite all his bravado, is really a down to earth human being.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t think I learned anything ground breakingly new reading this book, but I felt like I got to know the material in a more fleshed-out way.  It isn’t a list of facts or hight lights, it is the nuanced day-to-day that lift him off the page and out of the headlines.  I like the change of voice and style of writing, it made sense to me, and allowed the book to resonate differently than a traditional biography would.   I think it will also appeal to a wider audience because of the verse and easy flow.  I similarly enjoyed the illustrations that pepper the book.  I appreciate that the story is told from a friend looking in on someone that he knows well, but I almost would have preferred his brother being the voice and bringing the reader even closer to the boxer. Ultimately I want to know more about his parents and his brother and how they felt about his success.  The book didn’t answer a lot of question, but hopefully it will spark the curiosity of readers to go and learn more.

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FLAGS:

He slightly mentions crushes and dating, that his dad is out galavanting Friday nights until Saturday.  There is mention of a side character having part of his face damaged in an explosion, there is reference to the N word.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider the book as a book club selection if it served a larger purpose or the group had a preexisting interest.  I think if I were to meet with a group of kids more than just once a month for an hour or so for a book club discussion, this book would have a lot of potential for introducing the athlete, writing styles, historical implications and so on.  I just don’t know that we could get to all that in such a limited time. If they had already learned about his boxing accomplishment,  his protesting of the war, his conversion for example, this book would be a great discussion extender to supplement basic knowledge of him.