This follow-up picture book to The Arabic Quilt, takes readers back to Kanzi’s school, but also works as a standalone for ages 7-10. Addressing the hot topic of book banning, the fictional story brings the discussion down to an elementary level and shows kids speaking up and pushing back against something they don’t agree with. The main character finds a connecting thread to events in Egypt, and with her class and family behind her, she finds her voice and takes the lead. The story bounces around a bit and feels a little rough and underdeveloped at times, but the subject matter is important and can be used to help guide discussions, encourage peaceful protesting, and taking action. There is nothing Islamic specific in the text, the main character’s mom and teita wear hijab and are in the illustrations (#muslimsintheillustrations), in a memory of Egypt there is a man holding a cross. The author is Muslim and mentions it in the Author’s Note at the end.
The book starts with Kanzi leading the class to the library, she passes the Arabic quilt she helped bring to life and walks a little taller. She has promised her Teita she will bring home a book with Arabic words from the library, but when she walks in to the library, the “bookcase where the new diverse books were displayed has been emptied.” The librarian explains that the books have been banned. That the school district, like many others around the country, have decided certain books are not allowed. Kanzi is upset, but her classmates “gather near (her) in solidarity. They want her to know that they care, too.”
Back in class the teacher opens up the discussion, and Kanzi can’t find her words. Kareem says it is unfair and when the teacher explains that people are responding by protesting, writing letters, and buying more copies of banned books. Kanzi finds her voice and suggests a bake sale. Kareem suggests they raise money to buy books that are banned and call it “The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale and Protest.” Molly adds that they can put the books in Little Free Libraries. The class agrees that Friday will be the day, that baked foods inspired by books that are banned will be sold to raise funds to buy more banned books, and the local news station will be invited to broadcast the protest.
Kanzi helps Teita make baklawa from a book they once read, while her grandma tells her stories of protesting in Tahrir Square. Teita held a banner and demanded rights for the people of Egypt. Friday comes, and the kids are determined to be heard, as the crowd grows, Kanzi’s nerves also grow, but her strength comes from those that support her and who have also spoken up to be heard.
I enjoyed the illustrations and the backmatter. The inclusion of a baklawa recipe and insight to how this story came about with the banning of The Arabic Quilt, definitely adds to the book’s appeal. I felt a little disconnect though from the emotions of the book, and oddly enough, little connection to the characters.
I wish it would have shown her joy when she first saw the diverse book display. How it made her feel seen and valued and included to see books that reflected her and her classmates. Then we, the readers, would feel the pain too, now that they are gone.
I also was a little unsure of the scene when all the kids gather around Kanzi in solidarity, why is she the only one upset? Is it that they care about her or that they care that the books are no longer available? Sure it can be both, but again, as it is written, it isn’t particularly strong.
I’m not sure why the three characters named in the book Kanzi, Kareem, and Molly, do not have their names shown on the Arabic quilt pictured in the illustrations, and I also don’t know why it bothered me that the book banned that had baklawa/baklava was not named. I don’t care that it isn’t a real book, but I wanted a title to make the case of how ridiculous this ban is more articulate. Additionally, I love Little Free Libraries, but it seemed tossed in without much fleshing out. The book doesn’t explain what Little Free Libraries are, so I’m not sure that kids will even understand the plan.
The book is a decent read, I don’t know that the climax or characters will be memorable on their own, which is unfortunate because connection with the success or failure of this fictionalized book ban really could have radiated out of the book and deeply inspired kids. The reversal of the boards decision doesn’t directly link to the kids’ actions. I had to provide that link to my own kid when I read the book to him (he is almost 8). It is implied, but a line or two about how the kids protest encouraged other people to also speak up, or write letters, or that the school board attended the bake sale, would have shown that when voices amplify it is hard to ignore them.
The book has value on the shelf and can be preordered here https://amzn.to/3C5Baaj