Category Archives: Non Fiction

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

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

It can be pre-orderd here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern illustrated by Michael Sloan

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Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern illustrated by Michael Sloan

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I really like the concept and approach of this 192 page non-fiction graphic novel.  It isn’t a memoir or OWN voice retelling, it is basically an in-depth news story about a Syrian refugee family that has been fact checked and then illustrated.  Unfortunately, parts of the story are really choppy and unresolved, details shared for no purpose and occasionally reinforcing of stereotypes.  The book is an easy read and the Muslim family is shown to practice and be fleshed out, but more than once I found myself questioning what the author’s commentary was suggesting/implying based on what was being included.  I allowed my 12 year old son to read it before I was finished, but the last few pages had both misogynistic and homophobic slurs coming from bullies so I made sure to discuss that with him.  I think upper middle school to YA is probably the ideal readership because of the subject matter of escaping war, facing financial insecurities, PTSD, bullies, islamophobia, and navigating a new environment when you are not quite a child, but not yet an adult either.

SYNOPSIS:

Naji’s family is undecided if they should leave Syria or not.  Part of the family has permission to travel to Connecticut in America, but part of them still do not, including Naji’s grandmother.  The war has already imprisoned Naji’s father and uncles in the past and with the US election showing Trump having a chance, they feel like they need to make a decision quickly.  Naji loves all things American and is the only one in the family anxious to get to the US and get on with life, but when the moment of saying good-bye arrives, he has doubts.

Once they arrive in America, all their doubts multiply as life is difficult, help is hard to come by, and day to day fears of safety have not been left behind.  School, finding jobs, learning the language, and facing hate are just the big things that plague a family who has left everything to start over in this detailed account that follows Naji and his family as they navigate their new world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book has been approached as a news article.  I just didn’t like the unresolved threads that seem to take up so much of the narrative only to be abandoned.  I really struggled with the idea that Naji knows America and obviously media is global, but is shown to be confused by a dining table.  I didn’t like the commentary of Naji’s sister Amal and her hijab, I find it hard to believe there aren’t other hijabs in the school or larger community and why it is made to be such a big deal by her, and those trying to help her.  It would seem small after everything she has been through.  I do like that there are a few other Muslims in the school and at least they discuss that there is not a nearby masjid.  I wish other Muslims would have been around to help settle the new family.  I know a few groups that helped in immigrants in New England, so that there were no Muslims in the welcoming groups seemed hard to accept.  By and large it does show Islam being practiced, not just names and hijabs, which I appreciated, but for a book that is based on a real family, with graphics, I really expected a stronger emotional impact that ultimately for me was just not there.

FLAGS:

Death, abuse of power, war, language, bullets, shooting, kidnappings, detainment, destruction, kids making out in hallways, implied rape/sexual assault, death threats, racism, islamophobia, misogyny, slurs, name calling, differential treatment, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for me for a book club selection, but if I ever teach a journalism class again, I think I would some how incorporate this book as a way to show what journalism can be, and also as a clear way to show how what parts you include and what parts you keep out affect the messaging of the story as well.

Let’s Think about Allah’s Great Garden by Ali Gator

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Let’s Think about Allah’s Great Garden by Ali Gator

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At 22 pages this book’s title aptly describes the contents within: at times factual, sometimes breaking down the fourth wall and asking readers to do something engaging, at times fictionalized, and often meandering and reflective.  The book is all over the place and only cohesive in theme.  It has sat on my shelf untouched by my children for quite a while, but when I needed options for the library during Earth Day, this book did a great job in facilitating discussion with pre k to 1st grade.  It isn’t a story time book so to speak, but it gets kids thinking and can be tailored to their level of discussion.  I don’t think that is how the book was intended, and as it is written it is rather unimpressive, but when pulled apart it did serve a very specific purpose.

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The book starts out with a few lines about Allah’s blessings of all things particularly trees and plants and gardens.  I wasn’t sure if it was trying to rhyme or not, but I think the first lines are just incidental rhyme as the flow and words quickly unravel. It talks of climbing trees and the narrator’s father telling him to be careful. It then discusses watermelons and how they grow in the ground, not on a tree and asks readers if they can see the watermelon seeds in the illustrations.

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The book focuses on the life cycle of plants: seeds, flowers, trees. Drawing on that information it then shows the little girl collecting seeds to plant.  It then talks about the planting process and the needs all growing things have to prosper if Allah so wills it.

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Then the book gets interesting and starts to discuss the plants mentioned in the Qur’an before returning back to the half hearted narrative remarking on how the flowers complement the color of their house.

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The story seems to then end, but it isn’t denoted that the remaining pages are factual or set aside as back matter, it just pivots and begins discussing rain in Surah an-Nahl, Trees in Paradise as mentioned in Qur’an and Hadith, and then again, but this time in table form, the fruits and vegetables mentioned in the Qur’an, and highlighting dates specifically.

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The book is all over the place, and I doubt it will be read again until next year.  There are a few other books that have come out about his topic, and I plan to look in to them to see if they work better for story time readings and child engagement.

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

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

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

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The 30 included in the book:

 

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

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

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

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

 

ABC’s of Pakistan by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Michile Khan

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ABC’s of Pakistan by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Michile Khan

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I absolutely love this ABC book, it truly does Pakistan proud and I’m thrilled that I could obtain it, it wasn’t easy, sorry not sure where you can get it in the USA, and it isn’t available even at Liberty Books in Karachi, but if you can find it, grab a copy, or two because it really is a well done tour of the country.  My only suggestions would be thicker pages, the hardback 8.5 x 11 binding is nice, but the pages seem to have curled in the transporting from overseas.  Also, some pages have a large A or E, but others such as the words for B, C, D, are just all flowing story style over a two page spread.  I don’t mind one way or another, but I do side with consistency, either have the letter on all pages singled out, or on none.  The effort to string the pages together makes it read very much like a story, and I appreciate that it features little snippets of fact and history in talking bubbles throughout.

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Little Hassan and his cat Makhan introduce themselves and then take you on a tourney of Pakistan.  Included are landmarks, handicrafts, foods, famous people, festivals, sports, and more.  It concludes with a reminder to carry facemasks and hand sanitizers, which might date the book a little in the future, it was published in 2020.

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The book works for non Pakistani’s to learn, especially those of us with children that have not been to the “homeland,” as well as for Pakistanis in Pakistan to feel proud of their culture, history, tradition, and landmarks.  There are beautiful masjids and the azaan mentioned and hijab wearing and non wearing women, as well as famous men and women included.  It is inclusive on the F for festivals page where it mentions Eid, Basant, Christmas, Diwali, and Children’s Literature Festival.

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Enjoyable text and illustrations alike. InshaAllah, will be more readily available if we can convince the author and illustrator and publisher that there is demand, I hope, hint hint.  Happy Reading!

One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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This book is so long overdue, yet at the same time it was worth the wait.  The writing is simply superb: Fatima al Fihri is celebrated, Islam is centered, there are references, and the story compelling.  We, Muslims, as a whole know so little about the beautiful impact fellow Muslims have had on the current world and our way of life, that to see this book being celebrated in public libraries, in Islamic schools, at masjids, and retail bookstores, truly makes you sit up a little straighter, and reach confidently to get this book in your hands to share with those around you.  Thank you Mindy (@moyuksel.author) for these 40 pages of absolute delight, ages 5 and up will read it to learn, read it again to enjoy, and inshaAllah read it repeatedly to be inspired.

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The book begins with a Hadith regarding seeking knowledge and leaving knowledge behind.  It then begins the biography of Fatima as a small girl curious about the world around her starting with the word Iqra, read, from the Qur’an.  It sets the stage of her living in the desert in the early ninth century, a time where some boys went to school and some girls learned at home. Her connection to Islam and it teaching her the value of knowledge caused her wish, to build a school, to grow stronger.

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When war destroys her town her family flees to the busy city of Fez, Morocco.  She begins to accompany her father to the souk and enjoys listening to talk of planets, distant lands and different languages and wishes these scholars could educate everyone. She grows and gets married and her and her family become wealthy merchants.

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Tragically, her father and husband die, and Fatima must decide what to do next for her family.  She decides to help her community as a form of sadaqah jariyah and make her wish a reality.  She sets out to build a school where everyone can live and study for free.  She purchases land, and the building begins.  Fatima oversees each detail and names it the al-Qarawiyyin after her hometown in Tunisia.  It takes two years to build and it still functions today.

The back matter is just as compelling as the story with an Author’s Note, information on The University of Al-Qaryawiyyin, a Glossary, Bibliography, and a Timeline.  The only complaint I have about the book, are the illustrations.  I really don’t understand why half of her hair is showing when based on the time and her connection to her faith, she most likely was a niqabi.  I don’t understand the continuity of the hijab from a young child to adulthood.  I get that it shows her influence moving forward at the end, but it could have been a small print on an outfit for token representation of symbolism, I don’t get it as being a complete outfit her whole life.

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I absolutely love the role of Islam in both Fatima’s life and in this book.  It is so much a part of her and her wish, that every reader will recognize how connected her faith and the creation of the University were and I’m confident both Muslim and non Muslim readers will be in awe of her devotion and accomplishments, inshaAllah.

My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About Ramadan: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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Once again, Sara Khan pushes the standard of what can be conveyed and presented in a toddler board book.  This book on Ramadan not only introduces concepts of the blessed month to our littles Muslims, but also provides details that will allow the book to stay relevant even as a child grows.  The soft, yet colorful pages allow the book to be engaging and attention holding for ages 2 and up, and provides a great way to get young children looking forward to Ramadan, as well as be read repeatedly during the month.  The 26 thick pages have a facts and questions about Ramadan at the end which make the book shareable with non Muslims and the many shapes, colors, cultures, and ages that make up our Muslim communities fill the pages that radiate with joy and love.

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The book starts out expressing the excitement of Ramadan, the new moon, and the anticipation.  It then talks about how Allah swt wants us to fast from dawn until sunset.  It mentions the five pillars, and fasting in Ramadan being one of them, and what it means to fast.

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It focuses on doing good deeds to make Allah swt happy.  It also dedicates a two page spread to showing who doesn’t have to fast, which answers that inevitably next question that people ask.  The book then says that even if you aren’t fasting, there are still blessings everyone enjoys in the month and spends a few pages detailing those activities and acts of worship.

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It mentions that Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an and that Laylat al-Qadr is the night of power, but doesn’t give much detail about either. Eid is celebrated at the end and a dua is made referencing a hadith in Bukhari about entering through the gate of Ar-Rayyan.

I love that the book’s tone is that this is what Allah swt wants us to do, and this is what makes Him happy.  Even with numerous Ramadan books out there, this one still manages to find a way to be unique, and truly the entire series is enjoyable and beneficial, alhumdulillah.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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