Category Archives: OWN Voice

Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

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Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

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I have no idea if the author identifies as Muslim. I saw the 2023 YA book described as a Middle Eastern fantasy, characters with Arabic names,  djinn representation and possibly a hijab wearing protagonist on the cover, so I requested an advanced reader’s copy, squealed with delight when I got approved, and happily fell into the 464 page world of The Sahir and Kingdom of Alqibah.  Their is no Islam in the book, it is not a hijab, but I’m sharing it here, not just to let readers know it isn’t Islamic rep, but to let them know that for the genre it is pretty clean, and the story is an engaging easy read.  At times Imani is whiney and annoying, but she has a developed arc, and the book has a few slow patches, but nothing that lasted long enough to tempt me to give up on it.  I think 14 year olds and up can handle the three brief kisses, the sexual assault that is thwarted, the lusting glances, the killing, the potential addiction, and the commentary on colonizers and oppressors.  It is the first book in a series, so this review is only for this book and not an evaluation of the rest of the books that perhaps are not even written yet.

SYNOPSIS:

In Qalia, the Shields protect their community from monsters with the Spice entrusted to them, misra, that magically empowers affinities in them.  The top Shield, Imani, has an affinity for iron, and with the support of her powerful clan she exists in a world of privilege and opportunity.  When her powerful brother, Atheer, is assumed dead after stealing misra and suffering from magical obsession, the family’s reputation is not as pristine as it once was.  Imani’s younger sister, Amira, is also keeping secrets as she is caught stealing, skipping school, and refusing to follow family orders and country laws.  When the two girls find themselves following Atheer’s horse into the forbidden waste, they learn that their brother might not be dead and that there is more to their world than they ever were allowed to know.  With desperation to learn more about her brother’s location clouding her judgement, the Djinni Slayer, Imani, bonds with Qayn, a djinni who claims to not only know Atheer, but to have been his close friend.  Imani scrambles to know what to do, and seeks out answers and permission from Council, that results in her and three other’s heading off on a rescue mission to the Kingdom of Alqibah.  Everyone’s orders, however, are not the same, and first they must survive the desert, the monsters, and each other if they are to find Atheer.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love  that the world building is not at the expense of character development.  The single linear story line does mean that at times side characters are seemingly forgotten, but the focus of the world through Imani’s eyes allows the gaps to be overlooked as her concerns and priorities take center stage.  I love the emphasis on family, it is sibling love that is motivating the protagonist and closeness to an aunt that allows for privilege and opportunity. The romantic threads and tangents never overshadow the familial importance- it isn’t a forced obligation it is very warm and it is nice to see and feel the truth in the characters approach to family.  I love the Arabic names, foods, and while my electronic version did not have a map, the author has one on her Instagram page that suggests the physical book will have a map.

I love that the book discusses colonizers and oppressors.  It may be fiction and fantasy, but there are some very real themes included in fleshed out way that would allow for a lot of deeper discussion and connections to be made. The book is well polished, I don’t know that it reads like a debut, which is always a good thing I suppose.  At times Imani is really unlikeable, but fortunately it doesn’t last too long, same goes for Amira and her bouts of childishness juxtaposed with her glimpses of maturity. Taha, is noted to be very different depending on the company he keeps, so while frustrating- it seems to be intentional. The only real hiccup I felt in the book was understanding how at times the language differences were such an obstacle and how at other times Imani could read the graffiti and be understood.

FLAGS:

Magic, romance, lust, kisses, flirting, attempted sexual assault, lying, killing, addiction, alcohol, drinking, murder, abuse, physical abuse, bullying, oppression, colonizing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would pick this as a book club read, but I would definitely shelve it in a class, school, or home library.  I think it is a fun read for teens and up and I look forward to the rest of the series.  The book releases in January 2023 and as always presales are the biggest way to show support to authors and titles.  You can find the book here.

 

 

The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

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The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

This new YA book features Muslim characters, but is not a religious conscious read that fits in the halal category.  There is a lot of Islam: waking up for fajr, celebrating Eid, a hijabi, mention of jummah, but the OWN voice rom com sets boundaries based on Bangladeshi culture and American perspectives.  The book does not other, or have internalized Islamophobia, or fall in to tropes of oppression and rebelling- quite the contrary- it normalizes everything: LGBTQ+ relationships, dating, music, etc.  The book is well written from a literary perspective: easy read, fleshed out characters, resolved plot lines, I wish there would have been more slow burn and heightened emotion, and cathartic release, but it happily held my attention for 388 pages, so I can’t really complain about plot holes or development.  The problem I have as an Islamic School Librarian is the non issue dating and romance is for the characters with their parents knowledge, both lesbian and heterosexual.  The book doesn’t get graphic, in fact there is only a handful of kisses, but there is a lot of hand holding and pdas in front of parents and even a sleepover with a lesbian couple in a Muslim family’s home, again, nothing “racy” occurs, but the normalization is worth noting for those thinking a Salaam Reads book is going to be a more Islamically centered publication.

SYNOPSIS:

Zahra Khan has graduated high school, and while she’d love to be heading to Columbia to study writing with her best friends, she is stuck deferring her admission and scholarships, and hiding her dream to be an author.  Two years earlier her father has passed away and Zahra works in a tea shop to help keep a roof over the heads of her mother, grandmother, and siblings.  In the Bangladeshi community in Patterson, New Jersey Zahra’s mom imagines arranging a marriage to a wealthy family for Zahra to ease their financial stresses.  When a potential match comes a possible reality, Zahra takes control to try and keep the peace and keep her dreams within reach.  In Jane Austin-y feels, a love triangle emerges, friends step up, culture and family touchstones shared and appreciated, and decisions about the future will have to be figured out at 18 years old.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved how easy a read the book is, the cultural framing was warm and rich and never overly explained or apologized for.  It is what it is, it is who the characters are, and while at times they push back on the negatives, it doesn’t disregard the love that exists at the core.  Unfortunately, I really struggled though with the ease in which the characters date with their parents’ knowledge, hold hands, cuddle.  I really couldn’t imagine a practicing Muslim family being so supportive of a lesbian daughter in the way that the Tahir family is and allowing a sleepover, nor could I see a hafiz attending musical concerts and Bollywood movies or an imam passing on “love” notes, even side comments about a loan between mother and daughter being paid back with interest felt off.  I know I know, there are lots of shades of Muslims, but the normalcy of haram I feel in a review of this book should be noted. It isn’t side mentions, they are central to the story and large portions of the book.  The reason I also feel they are worthy of note, is because the book includes a lot of Islam as well.  The characters pray and fast and eat halal.  They are conscious of chaperones in some settings and keeping things appropriate.  There is no doubt that the characters are Muslim, but I think intentionally, to avoid perhaps critiques such as mine, Islam is not used as a reason to do or not do anything, Islam is not used in the thought process or conscience of the characters, culture is.  There is no haram police setting boundaries, it just isn’t what “good Deshi girls do.” To be fair, I don’t think the author has ever claimed that this is a halal love story, or that the characters are exploring their Muslim identities, it is a love story that features Muslims is all.

FLAGS:

Straight and sapphic relationships, secret relationships, kissing, hand holding, hugging, lying, music, loss, bullying, interest.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not be able to use this book, it would be very damaging to be given to a Muslim child from a Muslim teacher in an Islamic school.  It normalizes a lot of haram in a familiar Islamic framing that I think would really confuse YA readers who see themselves and see no push back or consequences for actions they know to be against Islamic ideology.

House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

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House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

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While reading this 320 page YA supernatural/contemporary book-I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  When finished- I was bothered that certain threads weren’t resolved, now that I’ve ruminated a bit- I think the vagueness of the author’s prose in sharing her “fever dream” on paper has lingered and the gaps not as troublesome.  The author’s OWN voice Afghan-Uzbek Muslim identity adds layers to a story that is both haunting in the literal sense and familiar in the immigration inter-generational traumas and secrets shared.  Even deeper though, the book pokes at universal themes of regret, holding on to the past, family, friendships, and grief.   The book’s characters identify as Muslim, but the story is not Islamic, nor is there much religion save a few salams and mentions of Eid.  The supernatural elements in the book, whether you understand it to be ghosts, or personified memories, or jinn, are a large part of the book, but are not framed in a belief or spiritual manner, and while some may find it Islamically off-putting, I felt the book explored what the main character was enduring and what the weight of the past was doing to her, didn’t necessarily cross the haram line.  Her father has a girlfriend he is looking to marry, but it isn’t celebrated, and there are close male/female friendships, but the book is relatively clean for the genre and would be a good fit for high school readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Summer on Long Island has Sara retreating into herself.  Surrounded by nearly a dozen aunts and uncles and numerous cousins, it is the separation of her parents and trouble with her best friend that makes getting out of bed every morning a challenge.  As a result, her mother ropes her in to helping with her latest remodeling project.  When she enters an old crumbling house one morning to take “before” pictures, she starts seeing things, and feeling things.  Things about her past.  Things about her beloved grandma, Bibi Jan, who is alive and deteriorating from dementia.  What is the house trying to tell her? Why won’t anyone tell the truth?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mystery and the chills of the story.  As the reader you aren’t entirely sure where the story is headed, what you are to do with the bits of the puzzle you are given, but the intrigue to find out pulls you forward.  That being said, the book does reads debut, a few of the side story lines are not fleshed out enough to feel important, satisfying, or resolved and they come across as being abandoned.  I would have liked to see more of Sara and her father’s relationship, the details don’t seem to fit, and the continuity seems halfhearted.  At times so does the “night” it all changed with Sam.  I like the interpretive vagueness of the supernatural threads and that they are up for interpretation amongst readers not just at the end, but throughout the book.  I also like the family’s closeness even when they are disagreeing. For most of the book Sara and her cousins aren’t portrayed as particularly close and I didn’t invest time to differentiate one from another, but by the end, I felt that they were grounded and different and relatable, and I am not sure when that change occurred.  At times the writing seemed a bit repetitive, but the lyrical style would then catapult the story ahead.  There was one place that the fourth wall was broken though, and I was bothered by that slip.

Overall I loved that the Uzben Afghan culture sprinkles showed immigrant nuances, and that the love between the generations countered the trauma being shared as well.  The messaging is subtle but powerful long after the last page has been read.

FLAGS:

For the most part the book stays clean, the father has moved on and has met someone he would like to marry, the mom and aunts briefly recall sneaking out to attend a prom decades earlier.  There is mention of a child bride, and swimsuits, tank tops, and cocktail dresses being worn with no second thought.  For a YA book, the flags are incredibly minimal, save the “ghosts”(?). There are flags of a death that is detailed, the book is “spooky” at times, there is mental health, divorce, pain, dementia, abandonment, theft, running away, and fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to read this book with some high schoolers.  It is a quick read that would allow for a lot of self reflection, arguments, and entertainment.  The book is available here and releases in a few days, so if planning to purchase, please consider preordering and showing your support.

Iman’s Sunnah Adventures: Mama Once Told Me by Sharifah Huseinah Madihid illustrated by Lakhaula S. Aulia

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Iman’s Sunnah Adventures: Mama Once Told Me by Sharifah Huseinah Madihid illustrated by Lakhaula S. Aulia

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This adorable 36 page board book had me laughing as a mom watching the increasing exasperation and dishevelment of the poor mother in the book page after page.  The book focuses on the sunnahs of welcoming guests, but the interpretations are the efforts and understandings of a small child being overly helpful, and the toll it takes on his parents.  The humor, the presentation, the introduction to various sunnahs is well done for little ones and their caregivers alike.  The book has not released yet, I viewed an e-version and I’m assuming the final spread is a lift the flap review of sunnahs.  Nothing is sourced, and salutations on Prophet Muhammad ﷺ are denoted by an asterisk throughout the book with a footnote at the end.  There are two books in the series and both share sunnahs, humor, and the main character Iman.

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The book starts with Iman feeling bored as his parents prepare for the arrival of guests.  Iman then remembers something Mama once told me (him), “That the Prophet* said cleanliness is half of eeman…” and with that the little one is off to help clean. Bubbles and more mess later, Iman is proud of himself and his parents are shocked and the bigger mess that greets them.

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Up next is recalling that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ “would make a special seat to honor his guests” and Iman decides that glitter will be a great way to fulfill that sunnah.  When Iman is sent to get himself ready, more fulfillment occurs until Mama is exhausted and Iman finds a way to fulfill the sunnah of making his parents happy.

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The book might be a little above level of a toddler, but I think the silliness makes it a great introduction to sunnahs and will be a joy to read over and over again.

For more information about availability you can check the publisher’s website

My Garden Over Gaza by Sarah Musa illustrated by Saffia Bazlamit

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My Garden Over Gaza by Sarah Musa illustrated by Saffia Bazlamit

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

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

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

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

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

A Second Look by Hannah Matus

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A Second Look by Hannah Matus

a second look

Ok, so y’all, don’t be like me, don’t judge this book by it’s cover, its inside font and spacing, or even the blurb on the back.  Judge it based on this sentence: A modern ISLAMIC Libyan cultural retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, that is done so, so well.  It is seriously so well written and so effortlessly adapted that for those that know the original by heart you will giggle and be giddy with anticipation of how the characters and plot points are turned Islamic.  And those that have never read or watched the original or any of the many adaptations, will be sucked in and swept away by the story at hand.  Oh sure it needs a few tweaks here and there, but truly this hidden gem sat untouched on my shelf with it’s unattractive cover for way too long.  Alhumdulillah for @bintyounus giving the book a start and squealing with glee until the entire @muslimbookreviewer crew dropped everything and read the book.  Not that it was hard, once started, this book stayed glued to me as I tried to sneak minutes at dismissal, at work, while cooking, and talking on the phone to stay in the world so masterfully created.  The book is  halal, but the characters for the most part are in their twenties and I think I wouldn’t object to older teens reading it, but it is an Adult or New Adult book, in both characters’ ages and readers’ interest and appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

The five sisters in the BenTaleb family are all unmarried, balancing life, school, jobs, and daily stresses as varied Muslim Libyan young women in America. With so many girls, the parents of Jana, Elizza, Maryam, Leedya, and Kawthar are known in the small Midwest community as Abu l’Banaat and Umm l’Banaat.  When two young businessmen from Libya come in to town to teach at the local university, the eligible bachelor’s are sough after and all the drama, angst, longing, and courtship comes to fruition. Throw in a distant cousin who is an imam, a scandal with a younger sister, social media updates, and cultural expectations, and you have yourself a book full of laughs, tears, cheering, and joy.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how seamless the retelling is, the pop culture references, and how relatable and rich the writing is.  I was blown away by the beautiful strong Islam present that somehow never comes across as preachy, but is so thoughtfully present in presenting ideology, cultural pushback, western conflict, that Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the story.  I’m fairly certain every Muslim Jane Austen fan has thought how similar books written so long ago mirror the courting etiquette of Muslims, and this book delivers all of those hopes and imaginings: the names of the characters, the opposing perspectives of the sisters- I really can’t stop gushing, and haven’t since I finished the 200 page book.  There is so much Islam, swoon, and it is presented so well.

FLAGS:

As an Adult book it is clean, even as a New Adult book it is clean.  I hesitate to call it Young Adult because it is about marriage, and there is a scandal with a sister, and mention of wedding nights, and STDS and lingerie, nothing is explicit, but for as halal as it all is and how practicing the character’s all are, these few mentions elevate the story from suitable for a 13 year old, to being ok for older teens.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think everyone should read it and come gush with me.  You can purchase the book here.

Basking in My Brown by Fatima Faisal illustrated by Anain Shaikh

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Basking in My Brown by Fatima Faisal illustrated by Anain Shaikh

This picture book celebrating brown skin, particularly in girls, and specifically from a Desi culture point of view, takes on the notion of dark brown skin not being as ideal as compared to lighter skin.  If this is not a concept you are familiar with, I don’t think that the book will hit home, but as someone who has heard this refrain of staying out of the sun to not get darker since childhood, aimed at my friends and cousins (I turn red and burn in the sun), I do appreciate this owning and pushing back on a ridiculous colorist mindset. I don’t love the “magic” diction choice, and there is nothing Islamic in the book, save some covered heads that could be religiously inspired, or culturally, or even weather related, and I’m not sure if the author or illustrator identify as Muslim, but I’m sharing anyway because I know young Pakistani girls particularly, hear this colonial mindset messaging still, and I support undermining it.  This book is not about systemic oppression and racism and taking up space, this book is internal cultural acknowledgement of a pointless beauty notion.

A young girl begins the book telling of things she loves: trips to Pakistan to fly kites with her Dada, her mother’s dinner parties, swimming, climbing trees, but most of all she loves basking in the sun.  One day while playing with her friend Zoya in the warm sun, Zoya abruptly says she should go in before she gets too dark.  The protagonist counters that she loves all the shades her beautiful brown turns and equates it to magic.

She holds out her hand to show her magical brown skin shimmering, and connects the beautiful brown to the brown clay pot her Nani used to carry water in, the brown shawl her mother wore when coming to a new home, the brown of the henna her sister puts on, etc..  She says her brown skin has its own story of being proud, brave, courageous, soft, sweet, and fearless.

Zoya decides she likes the magic and decides to stay and bask in the sun. The author on the final spread raches out to brown girls to own, embrace, and celebrate their brown skin.

An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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

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SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Elephant’s Makeover by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ikram Syed

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Elephant’s Makeover by Rukhsana Khan illustrated by Ikram Syed

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I absolutely respect and appreciate Rukhsana Khan and even my least favorite Ruqaya’s Bookshelf published book is still a good quality book, so I preordered this with such giddy delight.  And yet, when I read it the first time, I didn’t get it.  I put it away, pulled it out again weeks later and still wasn’t feeling it, I repeated this process over and over, and finally, I’ve resolved what I’ve always known: that it is ok not to love a book.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still love and respect everyone involved, but alas, it just didn’t appeal to me.  So, as always, I’m accountable for my thoughts and my thoughts only and you are free to disagree and argue with me, it isn’t personal, and I will try and point out good and problematic elements so that you can make your own decisions based on your preferences and see if the book would be a good addition to your shelves or not.

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This hardback Muslim authored, Muslim illustrated anthropomorphized book takes the shape of a moral fable in which Elephant has no friends, attributes it to her appearance, forces the insects and animals around her to give her their eyes, waist, nose, arms etc., and then when they still don’t like her is persuaded by ant to return the body parts, apologize and be content to be ant’s friend.

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My problem I think with the book is that it conflates appearance with friendship without a clear moral, and then Elephant being forced to change by Ant to have a friend seems to reinforce a questionable mindset, even if Ant is more or less in the right.  There is no self reflection on the role of appearance, or what kindness looks and feels like, or even insight into what self confidence, friendship, and body appreciation entails.  It lumps it all together, uses outside influences to get elephant a friend, but doesn’t really articulate any lessons learned or moral to be conveyed.  If I am mistaken and the book is not set to be a moral inspired fable, the climatic joy of the book is simply, what- Do as you are told to have a friend? 

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The book starts out with the other animals questioning, but essentially bullying Elephant about her size, calling her big and awkward and wondering if she can even see or hear them.  Elephant then looks in the mirror and picks herself apart, body part by body part. She tells Owl, who has beautiful eyes to switch with her. Owl doesn’t want to, Owl needs eyes to see, but the transaction occurs.  Next up is Wasp, who has a tiny waist, then Mole with a star shaped nose, etc.  The result is a bizarre looking “Elephant” and numerous unhappy, unable to move critters.  Yes, they are all friends, size, nocturnal, predator, prey not brought in to consideration.  The animals leave and Elephant is still friendless and feeling bad.  Ant pipes up that he knows what should be done.  Interestingly Elephant doesn’t want to listen because it is “just an ant.”  Ant responds, “I have a million friends and I know how to be nice.”  So now we are using appearance, having friends, and being nice as synonyms. Elephant agrees to listen, Ant forcefully convinces Elephant to give everything back and apologize. Ant agrees to go with Elephant, once the animals and insects get their body part back they race off in fear.  Elephant is left back to normal but still with no friends when Ant says that he likes her.  So, was Elephant really sorry? Did she learn to be nice? To be a friend? Did she want to give the parts back or did she do it so Ant would be her friend? Did she appreciate the function and beauty of her own body? So many loose ends that don’t show any growth, teach a moral, convey entertainment or joy, or make me get what the purpose was.  It left me, and my children confused.  And again, had we laughed along the way and been entertained, I wouldn’t need a character arc or lesson, but sadly we closed the book having not felt those feels at all.

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When the cover was revealed I’ll admit I was intrigued by the texture and tone of the elephant, but for some reason the inside pages went from creepy with poignant intent, to a little disturbing, The body parts of the animals are removed and swapped and reaffixed with masking tape.  I’m not opposed to slightly dark humor in children’s books, but I think this could really bother some younger kids that will dwell on the idea of body parts being taken unwillingly.  The text is sparse and presumably the book is for younger readers, so consider this if your children are sensitive.

There is nothing religious or Islamic in the book, nor is their scientific elements to why the animals bodies are the way they are or for what purpose.  It does not discuss environment or relationships in a non fiction manner.  The clear large simple text would suggest the book is for 4-8 year olds.

 

Mama in Congress: Rashida Tlaib’s Journey to Washington by Rashida and Adam Tlaib with Miranda Paul illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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Mama in Congress: Rashida Tlaib’s Journey to Washington by Rashida and Adam Tlaib with Miranda Paul illustrated by Olivia Aserr

mama in congress

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this book.  Books by politicians are always suspect, by a politician currently in office- more so, and a book written about one’s self can be a little self promoting to say the least, but when I saw my library had it, I put it on hold and thought to give it a shot.  Surprisingly, the book is really cute.  It is framed as her son (one of the contributors) telling his mom’s story, it owns that while yes she was one of the First Muslim Congresswomen, there were a lot of people before her that ran and paved the way.  What really shocked me was the amount of Islam in the book: Salat-al-Istikharha, actively learning about Islam not just as culture, there is an Ayat from the Quran, etc.. The book says for ages 4-8 and for the amount of text on the pages, there is no way a preschooler will sit through this. I can see this book, however, being used in an elementary classroom to teach about the American political system, and inspiring kids that they can make a difference, that they can rise to positions of leadership without compromising who they are, and that no matter their background, and that they can be successful in following their dreams.  I don’t think Congresswoman Tlaib should be put on a pedal stool for some of the policies she has supported or bills endorsed, but I think even if you don’t support her politically, her story and her accomplishments do show possibilities for minorities to reach the highest levels of government.  The fact that she is a Palestinian Muslim Women and has found success in the context of American government as told from a child’s perspective, really surprised and impressed me, and I can see it being a worthwhile story to share with young students.

The book starts with two boys on the steps of the capitol, Adam and Yousif wondering if the president is their mom’s boss, and mom, saying that no, the 700,000 people in the district she represents are.  The book then pulls back and Adam starts to tell the story of him and his brother going to work with their mom, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib the representative from Michigan.

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Before she was elected their yama and yaba immigrated from the West Bank to America, where Rashida was born.  Eventually there would be 14 kids born and Rashida would choreograph dances, basketball games, and seek privacy to dance like a pop star, or chase after the bookmobile.

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Comments toward her well-spoken mother to learn English, embarrassment at the smell of the factory polluted environment, and an offer by a high school teacher to join the debate team, helped pave the way for Rashida to find her voice and make changes.

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Rashida was the first in her family to graduate high school and from there she went to college and then law school.  She also started to learn more about Islam and the reasons behind her family’s traditions.  Her favorite passage from the Quran became, “with hardship comes ease.”

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She started working with an elected official from the Michigan House of Representatives and started a family.  When a seat became vacant she was encouraged to run.  No Muslim had ever been elected to the Michigan House and even her own yaba didn’t think people would vote for an Arab, so she prayed Salat al-Istikhara and did a lot of thinking.

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The book shows what she wanted to accomplish and how she went door-to-door and found both success and hardship meeting with the people.  Ultimately though, she won the seat and held it for many years.  When Adam was 12 she decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, and he and his brother joined in to help knock on doors.

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She won, and was one of two Muslim women to be elected that year.  Adam and Yousif dabbed in celebration at the inauguration as their mom was sworn in in her Palestinian thobe. On her first day, however, there were threats, and Adam though they should hide the fact that they were Muslims.  Their mom told them it is important to be their authentic selves, “that sometimes it takes many to run for there to be a first.”

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The book concludes with a glossary, an infographic of the branches of government. Can be purchased here.