Tag Archives: 5th-8th

Better Than a Thousand Months: An American Muslim Family Celebration by Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey

Better Than a Thousand Months: An American Muslim Family Celebration by Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey

Better Than a Thousand Months.jpg

To be honest, I didn’t get the book.  I mean I understand that it was derived from stories the author told his children, and I’m guessing it was written to show similarities between Muslims and Christians, but I don’t understand how the 168 pages with lots of photographs and text from the Qur’an got published as a book.  That is not to say it isn’t without merit, it just leaves a lot to be desired.  The teacher in me really, really, really, wanted to pull out a purple pen and start editing.  I checked twice to see if I had an advanced copy or uncorrected proof, I even Googled the book to see what I was missing.  It doesn’t work for me as a completed book.  To me, however, it is a wonderful outline that is desperately wanting to be fleshed out.


A man in San Fransisco is sitting on the train when there is an earth quake, thus delaying his trip home.  As he dozes off he imagines interactions with his children that share his knowledge of Islam with them, and thus the reader.  The first interaction is with him and his young daughter discussing Christmas, and how Muslims view Jesus and the power of Allah the creator of all.  They jump in the “time machine” truck and drive through the hills of San Francisco reflecting on the concept of patience.  As Ramadan comes and the narrator dreams we get bits of how Muslims in America celebrate Ramadan, and some of the tenants of faith.  When he is awake we get some story about his family, how he came to Islam and his Grandma passing away.  But nothing is explained or even connected.  I have no idea how many children he has, what the story is with the step children and the confusion from having two daughters with the same name.  The story goes back and forth with his dreams being more “real” then his awake time, and both kind of moving in the same direction of explaining how Islam is practiced as a family in America (praying together, waking up for suhoor), the questions that arise from the children (how to pray at school, why Ramadan decorations don’t decorate the city), and how we are all more alike than different (same Prophets, similar stories).  The final dream sequence is sweet with the father and daughter showing, not just talking, about giving and charity, that I really want to send the author back to finish writing the book.  There are so many tangents that would give it depth that are stated in a few sentence paragraph that could so easily be developed in to whole chapters.  Unfortunately, as is, the reader is just left disjointed and confused.


I really like the premise, I like the literary flip of telling the story in the dream.  The ideas are just not presented smoothly.  I don’t think that a tween would get it, and the choppiness of the ideas bouncing around from short paragraph to short paragraph would dissuade even the most seasoned middle school reader.  The book has some good tidbits, but they are lost in the short glimpses of story and long passages of meaning of the translations from the Quran.  The Arabic Calligraphy is nice, but it isn’t stop in your tracks beautiful, and the font of the English translations are difficult to read.


None, the book is clean.


I tried to get my daughter to read it, but she was so lost and even asked if it was a collection of stories or a chapter book, that I couldn’t force her to finish.  If you can get through it, one could discuss how to “fix” some of the struggles the book has, thus emphasizing what the reader liked and imagining the back story for all the questions that arise but are ultimately not answered.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney illustrated by Shane W. Evans


The Red Pencil.jpg

I didn’t realize the book was written in prose until I opened it up to read, and immediately taken-aback I rechecked the AR level and sure enough, this 309 page book that is written in prose and covers the genocide in Darfur, is written on a 4.2 level. And it is amazing. I forced myself to stop reading at one point so as to not rush the depth and soul of the simple words from being lost in haste.  It is truly, in my opinion, a beautifully remarkable feat to convey such horrific atrocities with such hope and integrity to young adults in a palatable and inspiring way.

“Allah is the light,” he says.

I ask,

“How do you find Allah’s light?”

Old Anwar says,

“Take the path that shines the brightest.”


Amira’s life on her family’s farm is by no means easy, but she has loving parents, a little sister, her beloved sheep, and a dream of going to school.  Her father advocates for her, but her mother, steeped in tradition, sees education only as a waste of time.  The illustrations and sparse words manage to convey fairly solid understanding of Amira’s life, optimism, and relationships with those closest to her.  Although warned of the dangers the Janjaweed could cause, Amira remains fairly unconcerned about the mounting political unrest around her, until it is too late.  When death and the destruction of her home force the surviving members of her family and neighbors to seek refuge in a camp many miles away, the reader sees how truly horrific her experiences have been.  She refuses to speak or rather cannot, when a chance encounter with an aid worker brings her the prospect of getting her voice back, through the empowerment of a red pencil.  With restored determination she convinces an elder neighbor to teach her, but it is not enough for Amira Bright.  Her sparrow needs to soar free.


You expect a book written in verse to have a lot of imagery and symbolism, and The Red Pencil does a good job of balancing the story and the description, to keep the book on track.  The linear story line remains focused on telling the story at hand, making it attainable for elementary and middle school children.  The Darfur conflict is complicated at best, and using verse to convey it from a young girl’s voice allows a lot of the politics and dirtiness of war to be side-stepped without dismissing it.  Amira’s optimism and hope is at times naive, but more as a reflection of her personality then out of ignorance. She sees things, and feels things, and must deal with things, no child should, but her spirit shines through and keeps the book from being depressing, while still being sad.

Today the red pencil does more

than beg for my hand.

It makes me a promise.

It tells me to try.

The characters are Muslim and they rely on Allah, and pray, yet Amira’s thirst for knowledge includes that of learning the Koran (Qur’an) as that knowledge too, has not been readily available to her  There is a lot to discuss in the book, both what is written and what the reader brings to it.  I look forward to teaching the book, and re-reading it once again to savor in the rich images.


Muma stoops.


she has nothing to reach for.


Their is violence when the Janjaweed attack her family.  But I think it is conveyed in a manner suitable for 3rd grade and up.  It is not celebrated or glorified, it is traumatic and has repercussions that are respectfully conveyed.  There is also mention of a child bride, but not in so many words, that in all honesty I doubt most young readers will be as bothered by it as perhaps they should.


There is a discussion guide in the back of the book along with an Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, Glossary/Pronunciation Guide, Character/Location Pronunciations, and Important Terms that Appear in the Book.

An Educators Guide: http://media.hdp.hbgusa.com/titles/assets/reading_group_guide/9780316247801/EG_9780316247801.pdf

A study guide and quiz: http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-red-pencil/free-quiz.html#gsc.tab=0

The Red Pencil 1

Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo

Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo


Iqbal is the fictionalized story of the young Iqbal Masih, a real boy who escaped virtual slavery in a carpet factory to fight against child labor in Pakistan.  Although the book is a short read at only 120 pages, it is heavy in content.  The description of the children who work all day often tied to their looms to make the beautiful carpets desired all over the world, is both incredibly gut wrenching as well as inspiring.  The book has an AR level 5.1 and while the author and main character are not Muslim, most of the minor characters presumably are, as is the environment.  I am using this book for our new Book Club book because the message and determination of young Iqbal is something middle school students should feel empowered by, inshaAllah.

“So long as there’s a child in this world who is deprived of his childhood, a child who is beaten, violated, or exploited, nobody can say it’s not my business.”                                 …Iqbal


The story is told from the voice of a young girl, Fatima, bonded to a carpet weaver where Iqbal joins her and a handful of other children who are forced to make carpets to pay off their parents’ debts.  Iqbal has a reputation as being the best carpet maker and is rumored to have made one of the most difficult designs for a former master.  While good at what he does, Iqbal combats the naivety of the other children by pointing out that they will never be allowed to leave, even if they manage to pay off their debt.  This slow realization empowers all the children with Iqbal as their leader to dream of freedom, and to stand behind Iqbal as he dares to do more than just dream.


I like this book because it is vivid in detail and really takes the reader to a place they have never seen, nor thought about.  To read about another’s life paves the way for the reader to develop understanding and empathy, characteristics most middle school students rarely exhibit.  The fact that it is based on a true story, in the recent past, really hammers these concepts into the reader and changes the way one looks at hand tied carpets, and child labor in general.  I think it also makes the reader appreciate their own life, their own freedom, and educational opportunities even more.


The book is clean, but the concepts are for older kids.


Unit Plan:

Click to access iqbal-unit-plan.pdf

Summary with pictures:



Shooting Kabul By N.H. Senzai


ImageShooting Kabul is another book that I just re-read to see if it would be a good fit for our 5th – 8th grade Book Club, and I think it will be a perfect fit, so much in fact that i just ordered enough copies to use for our next selection, inshaAllah.  It has an AR level of 5.4, perfect for our age group, and depending on the copy and extra glossary, book discussion and extra pages, about 262 pages of story. I haven’t decided if I will have everyone read it, or divide the group on gender lines, have the boys read Shooting Kabul, and the girls read When Wings Expand.  Senzai’s book is definitely not a “boy” book, but knowing the boys in the school, and how tender-hearted they all seem to be to their little sisters and the preschool students, I may divide the genders so they feel a bit more free in discussing.  Not sure yet, will keep you posted.


Told from the 11-year-old perspective of Fadi, the reader is taken on an adventure that is both heart-wrenching and plausible.  Fadi’s family makes the decision to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban’s power grows and threatens the family.  In their covert escape, Fadi’s six-year-old sister Mariam is left behind and the family must continue on to America, obviously all completely destroyed by their loss.  Once in California the family struggles with fitting in, making their way, and living through September 11th and the repercussions of the aftermath on Muslims.  Fadi turns to photography and finds a niche, as well as hope that perhaps he can win the grand prize in a photography contest that will take him to India, that much closer to where his sister might be found.


The book, while political does not make it a black and white issue, like some YA novels dealing with Afghanistan.  Similarly while September 11, is a huge incident in the book, it is presented from the perspective of how it makes Fadi feel, and the bullying that comes with it, again keeping the terror a bit at arms length and consumable by a younger audience.  Being that the book is loosely based on the Author’s husband, and his family’s escape I think it would be permissible to say that the account and portrayal of life in Kabul and immigrating to America is realistic.  As a result, the authenticity of Islam is also kept.  The characters are Muslim and it defines them, it gives the character’s depth, but is not forced upon the reader.  Fadi goes to Jummah, he ponders points about the khutbah (sermon), he and his father discuss how the Taliban uses Islam to their advantage, not in the way the Qur’an and Hadith present it.  The reader, either Muslim or non, I doubt would be overwhelmed by the religious presentation, it simply shows that aspect of the character.  Fadi is not questioning his faith, nor is it being forced on him, it is simply who he is, and something that defines him, something I think will be identifiable to my students and allow them to imagine what they would do if they were in Fadi’s place.

In a few parts the story gets a bit slow, but I think if the connection is made, the students will not be bogged down by his internal struggles to tell everyone that he blames himself for the loss of his sister.  And if they do, they are short lived pauses and the book flows fairly smooth and quick as a whole.


The book is clean of language, boy girl issues, violence and content.


The author’s website is helpful


If your copy doesn’t have the readers guide it can be found here:

Click to access SHOOTING%20KABUL_reading%20guide.pdf

I liked these interviews with the author:





Yes that is the author down in the comments section, commenting, amazing I know. And get this I emailed her AND she responded, amazing indeed, subhanAllah, so here is what I wrote her:

Hi, wow, I’m still a kid in the sense that I feel author’s aren’t real people, so to get a comment from you, blows me away 🙂 thank you.  I will absolutely let you know how it goes, if you get a few minutes, I’ve read a number of your interviews, but was wondering why you chose to use your initials rather than your first name? And also, since I’m sure there will be a cynic or two in the group, as a writer/ storyteller, did you ever consider not having Mariam found and returned? If so why did you go with the “happy ending.”  Love your book, need to read Saving Kabul Corner.
Thank you so much,
and her reply:
no need to feel like a little kid! but i know what you mean… i still feel like that when i meet authors i love and respect!  regarding the initials — it would make a foreign name longer and harder to remember — plus since its a boy book I wanted to have an ambiguous authorship.  since its a kids book it “had” to have a positive ending, thus mariam was found…. but when i talk to kids i tell them that thousands of children are not found in war/conflict.

hope you guys have fun reading it!


N.H. Senzai

Ask Me No Questions By Marina Budhos

Ask Me No Questions By Marina Budhos


Before posting my thoughts of Ask Me No Questions, by Marina Budhos, I re-read the book. Luckily at only 162 pages and an Accelerated Reader Level of 4.8, the fast paced plot made for a quick read.  Having read it in 2007, when it first came out, I recall having liked it, and could recall the basic plot, but absolutely nothing else.  In hopes of finding a Book Club book I reread the novel to refresh my memory.  With the passing of time, the book drastically lost it’s relevance.  Although I know people that face the fear of deportation at every moment, I know people that registered and left as part of post 9/11 Muslim Registration Act, and still have been able to reapply and be reunited with their families on American soil; I think the young adults that once might have found themselves in this book have all grown up, and the new demographic as a whole doesn’t relate.  And, unfortunately, because of the lacking depth of character and plot development, most students I doubt will find much to relate to in the book.


A Bengali family living in New York on expired visas seek asylum in Canada after 9/11.  Told from Nadira, a fourteen-year-old girl’s perspective, the book details life as Nadira’s father gets detained at the Canadian border, her mother stays at a near-by shelter, and Aisha, Nadira’s older sister, and Nadira head home to New York to resume life, and carry on as if everything is the same.  The premise of how to live with the constant fear of being found out, especially at a time when people were “disappearing” for no reason and without cause is a compelling story line.  As the back of the book says “Suddenly being Muslim means you are dangerous- a suspected terrorist.”  However, the characters don’t act or practice anything Islamic, perhaps that on some level makes the book more ironic that they are targeted for having come from an Islamic country and having Muslim names, but for me, it just made the characters seem that much more shallow.  I never connected with the characters, any of them, and there are a lot of them.  There are so many side characters that do nothing to develop the main characters, nothing to move the plot, and really take away from the bonding with the turmoil that Aisha and Nadira are feeling.  One minor character is presented as religious and mosque going, and by default that the dad had given him some money to keep, implies the dad went to the mosque, but religion only shapes their lives in that they feel that is why they are being targeted.  On the other hand, they don’t seem very “cultural” either, yes they live among many Bangladeshi families, but you don’t see their identity developed there either.  Rebels to the norm are presented, but not articulated to reflect on who Nadira is and provide some resonance to her with the reader.  The characters seem isolated even within their cultural and religious community, which doesn’t fit , perhaps had the immigration situation isolated them it could be overlooked and understood, but rather it just makes Aisha seem petty and whiny and Nadira clueless, one dimensional attributes that leave the characters flat on the page.

By the end of the book, the title of the book starts to feel  like a cruel joke.  I had so many questions, why did they leave Bangladesh, why didn’t that father stay working in Saudi Arabia, why did they feel living illegally was alright, what happened to various friends that disappeared, not because of deportation, they just stopped being mentioned, where did the mom get her strength from and what is her background story?


By and large the book is clean, a cousin has a boyfriend that she is regularly sneaking off with, but nothing romantic is described, they are sneaking off to do political activist work.  Another character, a thug type, is shown to be able to acquire things illegally, and Nadira’s helps her friend Lily, discover that Lily’s dad is having an affair and has another family.


If I wasn’t look for a book to present to students, I probably would not have been bothered by a lot of the critiques in this post.  But because, my hope is to find something the students can identify with and take pride in, I was harsh with my view on the story.  There are redeeming qualities however, as immigration reform is still a hot topic, students need to be able to put their feet in someone else’s shoes to better understand an issue, and this book, for the age level, can provide that.  As a story of two sisters having to put their differences aside to help each other and their parents, this book gives some insight.  And naturally if I know of a student who has gone through a similar situation, I think they would benefit reading it, not in that they would agree or be inspired, but at least in feeling less alone.


At the moment I don’t see me discussing the book, but I will definitely keep it on the book shelf in the library.  If things change, the following websites are useful:

An article about immigration by the author, Marina Budhos


The first chapter of the book:





When Wings Expand By Mehded Maryam Sinclair



When Wings Expand, by Mehded Maryam Sinclair, was loaned to me by a friend who knew I was looking for books that might appeal, positively to 7th and 8th grade Muslim girls.  While this book would definitely appeal to that demographic it would not be limited to such a small population.  I plan to open it up to all the girls 5th – 8th grade for the Book Club, and recommend it to parents with older daughters to read together.  While the book is an easy read in terms of grammar, vocabulary and style, (150 pages written as journal entries), the content is emotional and religious.  The book is not AR, so I will have to make a quiz, but I would assume it would be about a 5th grade reading level.


Canadian teenager Nur, chronicles her mother’s onset of cancer, her death, and life after the loss of her mother through journal entries.  Using simple symbolism of a butterfly’s life cycle, Sinclair shows how Nur must not only grieve and accept her mother’s death, but also reaffirm her faith and trust in Allah (swt) and His plan.


I love that at it’s center the book is about two relationships; a young girl and Allah (swt), as well as a young girl and her Mother, both dear to her heart, neither tangible.  Any one with a heart can imagine the immense pain in losing one’s mother.  Teenage girls particularly need to be reminded that while they may constantly butt heads with their mothers, to lose their mom would be devastating; the book makes that point abundantly clear.  Nur and her mother seem to have a “perfect” relationship, at least in that Sinclair doesn’t detail any strain between the two of them, but I think the readers can supply their own baggage and imagination and still be able to connect with the character.  I like that Nur’s mom is Turkish and that her Father is a convert, I think that so many youth today are from mixed backgrounds and the juggling and sorting of customs is something they can relate to as well.  The book is clean of boy/girl issues, language, violence etc.  In some areas it is a bit too “perfect” so to speak, in how understanding Nur’s father always is with her and her brother and how readily their uncle swoops in to take them hiking or on a picnic, but it some ways the simplicity of it all is also it’s charm.  As the book progresses Nur, must help a cancer patient with some of her own faltering faith issues, and with strong Quranic examples, seerah examples, prayer, and love, the reader is able to reflect on the message, rather then getting caught up in some fast passed action sequence.  I think the book has a place, and I hope that it reminds the girls how short this life is, the value of their mothers,  the pain associated with loss, strength of family, and Allah’s mercy.


A box of tissues

Honestly because the cycle from sadness, to anger to acceptance to peace is fairly universal, I plan to simply let the students talk about the book, to see it through their perspective.  I don’t think much prodding will be needed.

Overboard By Elizabeth Fama


BismillahirRahman ir Raheem


I decide to start off the Book Club with a book that is completely clean of any boy girl issues, preachy-ness, excessive violence, crude language, etc.  My good friend and a former Islamic School Librarian in Rhode Island recommend Overboard, by Elizabeth Fama, for its quick moving plot, and easy reading style.  The book is only 158 pages and I read it in about 2 hours.   The book additionally appealed to me because it is an Accelerated Reader level 5.1, allowing me to open up the Book Club to grades 5-8th to see where the most interest is, and helping establish the Book Club participation protocol;  To gain access to the lunchtime discussion students are required to earn a passing score on an AR Book Test.  The book is out of print (according to the Author, more on that later), but through ebay and a local used book store I was able to acquire eight copies of the book.


Fourteen-year-old Emily boards an over-crowded ferry in Sumatra. When the boat sinks, she’s trapped by hundreds of panicked people. She finds Isman, a terrified young Muslim boy, floating in a life vest. Together, with Emily’s physical strength and Isman’s quiet faith, they swim for their lives.


The book is not in your face about Islam, as the main character is not Muslim.  Emily is from Boston who has moved to Indonesia with her physician parents, and is miserable.  She does not relate to the people, does not try to even, and wants nothing more than to go home.  Knowing her uncle is on a nearby island she runs away from her parents and boards a ferry to search out her uncle and hopefully, a way home to Boston.  The ferry sinks and she must not only find a way to survive, but is constantly forced to make choices that define and often surprise her as well as the reader.  In the middle of the ocean with people fighting for life vests, and dying, it is her own personal convictions that shape her choices and provide a great starting point for the reader to question what their own behavior would be in such a circumstance.  I like that there are other Westerners on board, and how while she initially gravitates toward them, she eventually chooses a different path.  As she floats, she meets nine-year-old Isman and for the first time really begins to relate to an Indonesian, someone completely different from herself.  Some of out students have been struggling with “stereotyping” and using negative terminology to describe different groups within the school, and I look forward to stressing that in the dark of night when your life is on the line, does it matter?  Where are your loyalties? Do you feel Allah’s presence more? Do your choices come from survival instincts or from a highter belief?  As they swim together Emily learns a bit about Islam, Ramadan, the names of Allah (swt) etc. and I think each and every point poses the question to the reader of what would you do? and why? At one point Isman is contemplating eating some candy that a fellow ferry passenger has offered him in the water and recalls a verse from the Quran allowing travelers to eat during Ramadan before tasting the morsel.  In his own quiet ways, he shows tremendous strength, resolve, and trust in Allah, attributes that I hope the students can be guided to reflect upon.  Initially I think they will identify with Emily, but I hope by the end they love the character of Isman and internalize some of his strength, inshaAllah.


Here are two links I plan to use when engaging the students in the discussion:


Click to access 50_strategies_lesson_plan.pdf


So if you go to the first link, the author’s website, she has an email address listed, so naturally I wrote her a little note, and crazy, subhanAllah she responded, I felt, and still feel like a little kid, so happy.  She also offered to answer some students questions after our discussion.

Some excerpts from our emails back and forth:

FROM ME: … I read through your website for teachers teaching the book, and was wondering if there is anything more you can add for me to share with the students, I think they will be thrilled to hear something from the author directly. Maybe something about how you came up with the character Isman, and what you hoped the readers would feel about him once the book ended.  Perhaps also some insight as to why you chose to present a character with a strong Islamic faith in a world not very Islamic friendly at the moment…

FROM ELIZABETH FAMA: … Thank you so much for this note, and for featuring OVERBOARD as a book club selection! I’m impressed that you’ve found copies (it’s technically out of print), and also impressed that you found the teacher study guide, which I thought I removed from my website in October of 2012! I didn’t realize that googling something like “elizabeth fama teacher guide” would turn up that page, but I’m glad to know that persistent teachers and librarians can still find it. The study guide is quite helpful, I think, but since the book is out of print I grudgingly decided to move on, and I unlinked it from the main page.

 Anyway, I’d love to answer your students’ questions. Maybe you can even compile some after your club meets, and I’ll answer as many as I can?
As for your starter questions, Isman came about of his own accord while I was writing. Emily shoved the life vest on him, and I didn’t think about him after that. Then, as I wrote on, Emily heard crying in the water and I was surprised to discover that it was the same little boy! Honestly, I didn’t expect to see him again. But he became absolutely essential to the plot, because I realized that Emily’s conflict was that she felt like a stranger in Banda Aceh and was not opening herself up to friendships, and that this boy was going to become important to her and change all of that.
I wrote the manuscript in 2000, and sold it to Cricket Books in August of 2001, so while I was writing it I didn’t really think about any prejudices westerners might have against Islam (this may have been naive of me, but I live in an academic, fairly tolerant, racially-mixed community). It was just natural for Isman to be Muslim because the book was set in Indonesia, and because I wanted a culture and geography that felt very different from everything Emily has known. Then September 11 happened, and I was so grateful I had written the book, because without making any sort of heavy-handed point, it shows a lovable boy who happens to have a strong Islamic faith–and in fact that faith helps both him and Emily to survive. (And yes, I assumed everyone would find him lovable by the end, as I did!)…

The book club will meet in a few weeks, inshaAllah I’ll post how it goes