Tag Archives: adventure

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

zachary ying

It is hard to believe that this book is middle grade- the world building, the social and political commentary, the authenticity, the history, the humor, the writing quality, the richness, really makes me embarrassed that as a child I never gravitated towards books like this.  Everything I love about contemporary fiction seems to be done so well in the handful of fantasy books I’ve read of late, add in layers of adventure, imagination, and nuance, and I don’t know why I took so long to embrace this genre.  Not to say every MG fantasy is written this well, but why settle for only friendship, family, and identity issues when you can have all of it and dragons?  This 352 page book about a Chinese American Hui Muslim kid is action packed, culture rich, unapologetically Muslim, and a gripping good time.  While I think lower MG could handle and enjoy the book, there is nothing explicit, it does in passing mention eunuchs, concubines, and adult entertainment, along with the main character stating that he is not attracted to girls a few times and that he acts like a girl, but presents as a boy, thus making me think middle school aged might be a better fit.  If younger kids read it, they may or may not even pause or notice the aforementioned possible flags, I only highlight them, so that my readers are aware and can be prepared to explain and discuss if needed.  As an adult reading it, I can see clearly that Zach is gay, but I don’t know that most kids will catch it.  The author skillfully hints at it, but doesn’t make it the focus of the story, ultimately making me feel like if you want to see it you will, if you don’t, you probably won’t. Oh and the chapter titles, they are awesome!

SYNOPSIS:

Zachary Ying is twelve and while he isn’t comfortable in his Maine school, he manages.  He dumps the delicious Chinese food his mom makes every day so that no one teases him for the smell it carries.  He tries to impress the other members of the Mythrealm club, a vr video game, without rocking the boat, and he loves his single mom who works hard since his father was killed in China advocating for the rights of Uyghurs.  He knows little about Chinese history, the language, or myths, but that all starts to change when his VR gaming headset becomes the host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. 

His mom becomes the target of demons and when her soul is taken, Zachary is off to China to secure the barrier that divides the worlds and keeps the spirits at bay.  To do that though he is going to need to learn Chinese history, the power of artifacts, and the role of myths in keeping stories alive.  With two friends, also possessed by past emperors, joining him, the adventure is non stop.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ramadan is mentioned on the very first page, that Zach’s mom wears hijab, that he only eats halal, and that details about life in China for Muslims is shared.  It isn’t the main part of the story, but it adds such a powerful layer, that I found myself looking up Hui Muslims and trying to rectify how little I know about Islam in China.  

The social commentary about which individuals from history are remembered and why some are celebrated and others vilified was so impressive to see in a MG fantasy book.  It doesn’t ask you to agree with the narrative, nor does it preach anything, it just presents it in all its beautiful shades of gray glory albeit often shrouded in humor.  I truly feel that most MG authors talk down to their readers, if these themes can be so strongly presented and consumed, what superficial fluff did I waste my time reading as a preteen?  Thankfully I’m an adult that loves juvenile fiction, so there is still hope for me yet.

FLAGS:

Magic, mythical gods, fighting, violence, lying, deceit, killing, crushes, same sex attraction, concubines are mentioned as are eunuchs, but nothing more is said about them.  Affairs and mistresses in context to myths and past emperors are mentioned.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could teach this.  Once you sense that he is gay it is hard to unsee, and in an Islamic school, that would be problematic.  I will have my own kids read the book, I don’t think there would be any concerns for me there.  A few weeks ago concubines were mentioned in a khutbah, so I’ve already had to explain that to one of my kids. 

PRE-ORDER BEFORE MAY 10, 2022 or PURCHASE AFTER HERE

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

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The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

I was a little nervous to read an adult fantasy book with jinns, both in terms of length and knowing I would undoubtedly compare it to the Daevabad trilogy, but I got an ARC and dove in.  I was put off by the use of gods, and that there was no Islam present at all.  I’m not sure if the author identifies as Muslim, or what her background is, so I told myself I’d read at least 25% and then state I didn’t finish it because I primarily review juvenile fiction with Islamic content or by Muslim authors.  Well, lets suffice it to say that arbitrary percentage came and went and I had no intention of putting the book down.  So why am I featuring it? Simple, it is clean and I liked it.  Aside from the plural little g gods, the book is Arab culture rich as a retelling of the Arabian Nights, according to @muslimmommyblog the Arabic is accurate, the story is engaging, and really my only question is, why isn’t it YA?  I have a handful of reasons why I focus on children and teen lit, but one very strong one is that the books are “cleaner” in theory.  Lately though, it has been hard finding YA that followers of my reviews can confidently share with teen readers.  I think this one, although it isn’t a religious mirror, the salaams, culture, Arabic, and storyline, tinge the framing and make it a fun “safe” read to suggest to our kids.  At 480 pages, it probably is best for ages 15 and up, and it ends on a cliff hanger, so I’m not sure what the next book might introduce, just be aware this review is for this book alone.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla aka Loulie aka The Midnight Merchant hunts and sells magic jinn relics that she locates with the help of her jinn bodyguard Qadir.  After her tribe was slaughtered by a mysterious army, and she the only survivor, Qadir and her have been a team.  When her skills align with the needs of a powerful sultan she is forced to go on a journey with his son, the prince and one of his 40 thieves, to find a magic lamp that will lead her to answers about her past, offer her chances of revenge, test her abilities, plague her with loss, and fill the pages with adventure.  Stories of the One Thousand and One Nights are weaved in through oral storytelling, world building is built and explored through the characters’ understanding their world and the jinn, and the non stop action keeps the story moving forward with minimal dialogue and a lot of high energy showing.  Clearly if I say too much, the excitement will be lost, and I don’t want to spoil the characters’ arcs, their foibles, their illusions, and the climax- seeing as it is a linear story and if the motivation to move forward is lost, the book will lose its charm.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book keeps pace pretty well, a lot of the spoilers are not dragged out and I appreciate that they are not used to dangle the reader’s interest.  The story has depth, the characters are fleshed out, and the truth and illusion reveals are done without insulting the reader.  I’m still undecided about the (SPOILER) comic book quality of death for the main characters, but it keeps it interesting, so for now at least, I’ll play along.

There aren’t a lot of characters, but there are a lot of names for each character and at times in the thick of fast paced action sequences, I did get a little confused as to what was happening to whom and who was saying what.

I don’t truly understand why the divinity is plural or why they say salaam, but nothing else “Islamic” is remotely present save the concept of jinn.  I suppose though for all the fantasy books that use Islamic terms and imagery and then present them horribly, I should be glad that this one really doesn’t conflate the two, but an athan in the background or a few inshaAllahs, sigh I suppose a girl can dream.

FLAGS:

Language, violence, murder, killing, deceit, minor seduction, betrayal.  Very clean not just for an adult fantasy, clean for most any YA or Teen book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It would be a bit of a pivot for me to feature this book as a book club selection because there is plural deities and NO Islam, but it is very tempting to suggest it to the high school advisor.  The book comes out May 17, 2022, you can preorder it which helps show support, or order after it releases on Amazon.

Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

misr

This middle grade series has been highly recommend to me numerous times over the years, and I finally found a copy to read and review.  It is book three in the series, and I have not read the first two, so I may be missing something, but the book didn’t wow me honestly.  The 147 page story published in 2011 has a lot of potential, but I felt like it didn’t know who the audience would be, and thus often felt cumbersome and disjointed to read.  At times it uses Islamic terms (muezzin), other times the Urdu words (namaz), and way too often the english meanings (ablution, peace be upon you, mosque), often all three in a single paragraph.  It is Islamic fiction and stays adventurous, without getting overly preachy and didactic, but there are some cruel life threatening antics by the girls, and some heavy themes of child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, gender treatment in Islamic spaces, finance and micro loans, but to its credit, it stays on level and, while as a mom some of the adventure needs adult intervention, I think young readers would support the young girls handling so much on their own.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve year old Zahra and her classmates from her Islamic boarding school are headed on a class trip from England to Egypt.  For ten days they will be learning about the history, the culture, and connecting to Islam.  A group of first year girls and their chaperones in a foreign country meet with former students, another girls school from the UK, and some of their chaperone’s husbands giving this short book a lot of characters to get to know briefly, and only in passing.

The adventure starts right away as bully Saira locks a claustrophobic girl in the airplane lavatory in revenge of being locked in a freezer and forced to eat spiders earlier in the school year, and the foreshadowing that these battles are not over is set.  Once in Egypt, the girls muddle through worksheets sharing what they have learned, stopping to pray, and enjoying the experience.  Every so often at the hotel however, they see a girl they have dubbed, “sad girl” and the mystery to figure out what is making her so sad will ultimately make this a trip that brings the girls close to danger, and if successful will make them heroes. Toss in a nasheed concert, a runaway camel, and it is going to be a busy week and a half for them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book presents a lot of Islam, and I think most readers will learn something and see Islam practiced authentically.  There is praying, and wearing hijabs, and halal meat, and Islamic history, and the 99 names of Allah all present in the characters naturally.

The book starts with Zahra and her mom and aunt rushing to the airport, they are running late.  Zahra’s aunt is not Muslim and presumably her mom is a convert, there is some really awkward dialogue before the family leaves, and it is called out as being awkward, but it just didn’t seem to fit either.  Why would a girl’s brother tell a non Muslim to wear a scarf? A character that is just in the first scene? I’m hoping there is more to her as a character in the first two books, and maybe this is a reference to something, but it just reads really weird and unrealistic (I hope).

Similarly, I am sure the first two books cover the forcing a bully to eat spiders and why she was locked in a freezer, but to just see that this is the level of the pranks, is a little disturbing.  The book acknowledges that locking a girl in a bathroom who has claustrophobia is dangerous, and that triggering the camel to run-off was similarly potentially deadly, but what about the other cruelties? It doesn’t even hint that there is more there, and I would have liked to see some context to recognize that these aren’t benign pranks, they are pretty big acts.

The child trafficking and kidnapping plot really had me wishing that the girls at least talked to Anu Apa. Having preteens take on such a dangerous situation so haphazardly was a little stressful for me, and I need to find some middle grade readers to help me see the actions through their eyes.

The randomness of the nasheed concert didn’t seem to fit for me, the song she wrote wasn’t that good, the whole thing came together too easily, and then some of the girls taking off their hijabs in wildness seemed such an odd tangent to me.

The biggest obstacle for me was the terminology and diction.  I don’t think it matters if the readers are Muslim or not, use the Islamic terms.  The teachers and students go to an Islamic school, it isn’t a stretch to have them use the proper term of salat instead of namaz, they can remark on the athan, not azan, they can say Assalamualaikum, they don’t need to say in english peace be upon you, and upon you when they greet, it seems so halting to the authenticity of the characters and flow of the story.

I think part of the difficulty in getting these books in the US is they just had one edition printed, and I genuinely hope that at some point the author will revisit the books especially now that she has been published mainstream for her other works, and hopefully grown as an author.  There is a lot of good in the book, it just could use some polishing and updating.

FLAGS:

Child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, cruel pranks, physical assault.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get these books on a classroom shelf based on this one book.  If a classroom or library already has them, I wouldn’t remove them.  Utlimately, I don’t know that many readers will stick with the sorting out of all the characters in the beginning of the book, and those that do I think would probably be slightly disappointed, not with the presentation of Islam, but in the side story building details.

The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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I have a vague memory of being told that this book features a Muslim family when I reviewed the author’s first book, but I can’t find the message, nor recall who sent it and to where.  The text does not suggest any religion by any of the characters, but that being said there are “Islamic” names present in this 195 page middle grades book by a Muslim author and set in Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka.  The fast paced story pulls you in and sets three kids up for adventure, overcoming fears, outsmarting adults, and becoming heroes along the way.  I didn’t love this book as much as The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, but it probably isn’t fair to compare them.  The book was released last year in the UK and will release shortly here in the US, I don’t know that I would rush out to purchase it, but I would definitely put it on hold at the library.  It is an adventure filled read from a boy protagonist perspective, it starts with a mutiny, features treasure, plotting, close encounters with a whale, and bringing justice to murderers and thieves.

SYNOPSIS:

Zheng has never had much of a family, and when his Captain’s First Mate and the cook poison their merchant ship crew and leave them to die, Zheng escapes.  He washes up on the shore of Serendib, not far from Galle, and is found by local fisherboy Razi.  Razi is a fisherboy that doesn’t fish, or rather no longer fishes, not since his father was killed by the sea.  Razi just tries to help get Zheng some food and get him out of the sun, but when Marco and Cook question him about the whereabouts of Zheng, he protects the boy and gets himself involved.  Promising not to tell anyone about Zheng, he immediately tells his twin sister Shifa.  Shifa is the rational one int he group and doubts Zheng’s adventure stories.  Her quick thinking and clever sneakiness provides time-and-time again in the book, a chance for the three kids to rescue each other, find the treasure, and return it.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is so fast past and unapologetic.  The descriptions of the island, and the plants and sea life, really is impressive and insightful into a country and culture not often explored in children’s books.  My mommy heart did not like that the kids would just leave for days at a time, and they never even thought that she might be worried, spoiler, she was! 

I like how subtly the grief and loss of the father manifested in Razi.  How he had to reconcile his emotions and start to move forward.  It isn’t in your face, but I would imagine that any child who has gone through something similar, would be reassured by seeing a fictional character experiencing something similar.  It is reinforced by Zheng’s lack of family and his need to find a “home.”

I felt like a few plot holes were too quickly glossed over in the heat of action.  I don’t know that it is a result of carelessness, I think it was more to keep the story fast moving and appropriate for the target audience, but I could have used a little filling in of the gaps: the ease of pulling people in to boats, where Zheng was going at the end and how it was all figured out, how Cook and Marco found Zheng, how everyone in Galle immediately recognized the dagger, why the kids were never killed even though numerous people were drugged at the beginning without a second thought, what the praise was for the returning of the dagger, what the oxen cart owner’s response was to the damaged cart, etc..

I wish there would have been a prayer to Allah swt at some point, or a bismillah, or an Assalamualaikum. The sister’s name, Shifa, and the medicine man that she trains under, Abdul Cader, imply a tinge of Islam, but I would have liked a tiny bit more, the book sets itself for lots to be sprinkled in, the children nearly die multiple times, but it was never there.  

FLAGS:

Death, lying, sneaking, near death experiences, grief, loss, theft.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun elementary read-a-loud with the short chapters and fast paced action.

Click to access The-Girl-Who-Stole-an-Elephant-Comprehension-worksheet.pdf

Journey of the Midnight Sun by Shazia Afzal illustrated by Aliya Ghare

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Journey of the Midnight Sun by Shazia Afzal illustrated by Aliya Ghare

What an absolute joy to learn about something real for the first time in a children’s picture book meant for ages 3-5.  I am baffled that this story wasn’t celebrated and shared by not just Muslim’s everywhere, but Canadians as well.  It is a sweet instance of real life being harder to believe than fiction.  It warms your heart and reminds you that there are so many good people doing selfless things for the benefit of others, every single day, subhanAllah.  As for the 32 page book itself, story inspiration aside- I kind of wish it had more details of the real story in it.  The factual blurb on the back cover was a bit more awe inspiring than the totality of the book.  I think it is because it is meant for such little ones, but I don’t know for sure.  I hope that there will be more books for various ages, about this mosque’s incredible 2010 journey. 

There is a small community in Inuvik, in Northern Canada.  The growing Muslim community has outgrown their one room space and it is more expensive to build a masjid there, than to deliver a pre built masjid from Winnipeg. 

With the help of some non profit and local groups, a masjid is built and sent north, hopefully able to reach its final destination before the river freezes.  The journey is fraught with obstacles: roads are too narrow, bridges not ready, low utility wires. weather concerns, construction, the masjid tipping over, but alas it arrives, alhumdulillah.

The entire community welcomes the new masjid, and the Muslim’s have a new space to pray and gather.

I like that there are maps and indicators of the distance.  And while I like the interfaith aspect in Inuvik being presented, it seems incredibly specific in a very vague book for small children. Why is the imam identified separately, the whole paragraph is just awkward.   Additionally, there is no explanation for why a minaret was needed or if it is critical to a mosque.  Some information other than the children wanted one, would help avoid confusion seeing as this mainstream published book is not targeting only Muslims who would know the function of a minaret, and that they aren’t required structures.

Some links about the event that inspired the story:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-11731017

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/11/10/north_americas_most_northerly_mosque_officially_opens_in_the_arctic.html

The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

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The Adventures of Nur Al-Din by Badees Nouiouat

nur al din

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Esa & Sol’s Adventures: The Hunt for the Saphaea by Asma Maryam Ali, illustrated by Eman Salem

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Esa & Sol’s Adventures: The Hunt for the Saphaea by Asma Maryam Ali, illustrated by Eman Salem

It is a bit tricky to review a choose-your-own-adventure style book, as each story twists and turns and leaves the reader with a different ending and thus, a different impression. I tried to explore every story line in a book that I had little expectation of, it is an intentionally splintered story after all, but even at that, this fell really short. The core of the story: a Muslim and Jewish boy in Cordoba, Spain in 1080 exploring real facts in a fictionalized story about hunting down a missing astrolabe, really had a lot of potential, unfortunately the tiny size (maybe 3.5 x 5.5 inches) and only being 76 pages, the frightening cover, and the misprinted footnote glossy right at the start, set the tone for a weak forgettable book, and by the time you get to the actual story and plot, you really have very little substance to change your mind.

SYNOPSIS:
Two nine-year-old boys start off the story chasing after their donkey who has run off and sent their oranges spilling over all around the square. They should clean up the chaos, but they remember that they are supposed to meet Zarkali, the greatest astronomer in all of Spain, as he finally has a job for them after months of waiting. His latest work is a brilliant astrolabe, but when they get to his workshop he isn’t there. When he finally arrives with his assistant Aleho they are frantic as the astrolabe, the Saphea, is missing. The boys were to be asked to help transport it, as they would blend in unnoticed, but now that it is missing what should they do? Should they search for it? Investigate if it was stolen? Accept their punishment for the mess with the oranges and their donkey? Let the first choice of many begin the adventure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the author’s knowledge about Muslim Spain and how she tries to introduce it to children perhaps unaware of the rich history. The inside illustrations are wonderful, the cover truly misleads readers, and naturally I wish the book was larger in size and longer in length. The foundation of the story, the getting to know the characters and their world, needs to be longer. The story should be established before you have to make decisions. It is historical fiction, but needs the world building attention that a fantasy book would require, and this book just doesn’t have it. As a result the choices and endings, are all over the place, not just twists in the stories, but huge changes. Some of the paths no longer focus on the astrolabe that is missing, and seem to offer both threads of something far more sinister at play and choices that keep the boys lives mundane. The book counts on the reader re-reading the tale and making different choices, otherwise your interaction with the book could truly be over in nine pages, nine tiny pages at that. And like I said above regarding the cover and size, they don’t entice one to pick it up and read, then if your adventure is only a few pages long, and you already notice the repeated definition on pages 4 and 6 (before any choices are offered), chances are you won’t revisit the book, learn about real people, marvel at scientific discoveries, travel the region, appreciate interfaith harmony, and get swept up in a historically fictionalized tale that puts you in the drivers seat.

FLAGS:

Fine for middle grades and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I highly doubt the book would even be looked at on a classroom library shelf, I have been trying for days to get my own children to read the book: they love to read, they love history, they love books with options, but they have yet to open the front cover.

My Laugh-Out-Loud Life: Mayhem Mission by Burhana Islam

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My Laugh-Out-Loud Life: Mayhem Mission by Burhana Islam

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Fairness aside, any book about a genuine Muslim British boy written in first person with doodles, lists, and hilarity for middle grade readers is going to be compared to the Planet Omar Books, and not only do they have the advantage of being first, but they also have set the bar really high.  This 266 page book is decent and fun, and if your children enjoy Omar, they will enjoy this, but even my kids compared the two and found this one just a bit lacking.  The story is outrageous and funny and has a lot of heart, the writing is sufficient, it just feels like the story gets away from the author.  Information is given for no reason and to no purpose, the story loses its way and fumbles around for a bit in the middle, seems to get off track at points, and is a bit weak in character development.  That being said, would I purchase and read future books in the series? Absolutely! I love that the standard and quality for books with Muslim characters by Muslim authors for our children are at this level.  There is no apologizing for Islamic Bangladeshi culture in this book, and the mainstream publication means Muslim and non Muslim children are seeing a nutty, loving family that they can relate to in a myriad of ways, alhumdulillah.

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SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf’s much older sister is getting married, and she remarks that he now needs to be the man of the house.  Unsure of what that means, he asks Sheikh Google, and is not prepared to do what it entails.  Not at all, he is only nine, but rather than discuss it, he decides instead that he must stop the wedding. So, with a bit of help at times from his cousin Aadam, it is full steam ahead to sabotage the upcoming nuptials.  With little time, he attempts to make his sister unwanted in her inability to cook, keep her hidden in her room by removing all the hijabs in the house, spreading rumors that she has died, ruining her wedding dress, and more, so much more.  It is cringe worthy at times, and hard to put down at others, but alas there is a happy ending, and lucky us, we get to read all about it in Yusuf’s year five what I did over summer vacation essay.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family dynamic is a single mom, her mom, and the two kids.  I think it is important to show some diversity that reflects the family situations of many Muslim children that have thus far been a bit down played.  The book is relatable and contemporary with Marvel references, while tossing in everyday cultural references too.  The family prays, does tasbeh, memorizes Quran, covers, etc.  The book tries to give some depth to the characters, such as Yusuf’s eczema, but it kids don’t get it and the text muddles it to the point, that it misses connecting to the readers.  Also, even kid readers get that a simple conversation could have prevented most everything in the book.  Time is tight, but not that tight for things to get so outrageous.  The book is a British, but I think US readers can handle it, they may, like me, have to Google Jaffa Cakes, but I think they will be fine.
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FLAGS:

Deceit, sneaking, lying, gossip, destruction of food and property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think the book would lend itself to a book club, but I think home and classroom and library shelves will benefit from hosting this book.

Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Make sure you are sitting in a comfy spot when you crack open this middle grades fantasy adventure, because it hits the ground running from the very beginning and doesn’t let up over 368 pages.  The like-able and relatable brother sister duo snarkily banter and bicker about everything from cultural Indian (Desi) folklore, religious stories, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, He-Man, Arabic Sesame Street, Star Wars, hygiene, fears, potential science fair projects, and food, all while battling jinn, devs, peris, and reality as they work to save the worlds.  The book is chalked full of STEM concepts, cultural touchstone, Islamic footholds, pop culture, and fun, as one character remarks, it is the ultimate fan fiction. I regularly Googled people, references, and concepts, and ended up learning quite a bit.  And don’t fret if you ever get lost or confused, or something doesn’t make sense, you don’t have to worry that you missed something or that the author left a gap in the narrative, the book moves quick and Amira’s constant dialogue and commentary points out all the ridiculousness of what they are experiencing and the questions that she wishes she had time to ask, explore, and discover.  The author never loses control of the narrative, and keeps the world building on level without skimping on details and understanding.  I have not loved any of the author’s previous books in their entirety, I think this one, however, is her best one yet, and the switch to middle grades is a good fit.  

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Amira and her 10-year-old brother Hamza are heading to the Shriner’s Madinah Temple in their hometown of Chicago to explore the exhibit of Ancient Astronomy artifacts, or as Hamza calls it “tools that belonged to dead Muslim Astrologers.”  Hosted by the Islamic Society of Ancient Astronomy corresponds with the eclipse viewing party of the incredibly rare super blood blue moon.  In typical Hamza fashion however, a Nerf gun is brought and things are touched.  When Amira is tasked with bringing her brother up to the roof to learn how to use the telescopes, the two scuffle over a small box with a tiny moon inside, a series of snatching and tussling between the siblings cause the Box of the Moon to break, or rather start working.  As day turns to night, the moon seems to be breaking a part, and everyone in the world is suspended in sleep except for Amira and Hamza, and an entire jinn army is heading their way.

When jinn leaders Abdul Rahman and Maqbool reach the children they must convince them that they are not there to harm them, but rather to recruit them as the chosen ones to save the worlds: Qaf and Earth and the barrier, the moon, that keeps the realms separate from destruction at the hands of Ifrit.  The confusion over there being two of them creeps up, but is squashed as Suleiman the Wise left tests to prove that the chosen one is properly equipped to battle Iftrit as it has been prophesized.  The children must work together to prove themselves they must then actually seek out and defeat Ifrit.  As tests and challenges arise, it becomes clear (pun intended) that the two are not the chosen ones, but with no option of turning back they must forge ahead none-the-less.

“What? We’re Indian, dude, we were basically born half doctor.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Amira and Hamza’s banter.  The references are at times laugh out loud funny.  Similarly, I was impressed by all the historical and STEM concepts intertwined in the story, there is even a tiny bit about mental health.  I learned about parts of the moon, historical figures, folklore, and more.  The characters are Muslim, Amira wears Ayatul Kursi around her neck and they talk of Sunday school.  The book isn’t religious though, in they aren’t saying Bismillah before they embark on things, or supplicating when in danger, but they greet different beings with peace, and the framing is clearly from an Islamic paradigm.  I think the high speed pacing works for most of the book, and somehow you still get to know and connect with the characters, but at times a slight pause to clarify a point would have been nice.  I would have liked to have the kids proving they were the chosen ones a bit more articulate and dramatic before hand rather than in retrospect.  I feel like the jinn transportation of cauldrons could have used a bit of backstory as well.  And a little fleshing out of the scroll, the government structure and communication methods of Qaf, would have helped some of the transitions between the action.  I read a digital ARC and it had a page reserved for a map, and I think when the physical book comes out that will be really helpful, as I didn’t quite fully understand the 18 realms and their locations  in comparison to the locations the children encounter.  

FLAGS:

UPDATE:  I TOOK THIS BOOK AS COMPLETE FICTION. THAT THE ISLAMIC PREMISE WAS A STARTING OFF POINT, AND DIDN’T DWELL TOO MUCH ON THE ACCURACY.  I READ AN ADVANCED READER COPY OF THE BOOK THAT DID NOT HAVE ALL THE SUPPLEMENTAL AUTHOR’S NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END.  I WAS UNAWARE THAT THE AUTHOR FELT SHE WAS INCOPERATING FACT AND ACCURACY IN THIS INCREDIBLY FICTIONALIZED BOOK. AND AS A RESULT I AM NERVOUS TO SUGGEST THIS BOOK TO THE MIDDLE GRADE INTENDED AUDIENCE.  IF YOU HAVE A MUSLIM CHILD THAT IS WELL VERSED ON PROPHET SULAIMAN, THE CONCEPT OF FICTION, AND IS OLDER THAN THE IMPRESSIONABLE EIGHT OR NINE YEAR OLD INTENDED AUDIENCE, ONLY THEN PERHAPS WOULD THIS BOOK WORK FOR YOU.  IT WOULD BE VERY MISLEADING IF YOUR CHILD TAKES THE TWISTED STORY AS FACTUAL AND BASED ON THE NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END, THIS VERY WELL COULD HAPPEN. To read more about the concerns you can click here and head over to Muslim Mommy Blogs take on the book.

There is magic and magical beings. A transgendered jinn.  It mentions Amira and Hamza celebrating Halloween. Death and fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great audio book to listen to with the family or a read aloud in a middle grades classroom.  It is too young for middle school readers to not find it slightly predictable, but if you had it on a classroom or home shelf I am sure it would be picked up, read, enjoyed by middle grades and middle schoolers alike.  It reads much like the Rick Riordan Presents series and I hope that there are more books featuring Amira and Hamza in the future.

 

The Tale of a Tiny Droplet by Ally Daanish illustrated by Oana Cocheci

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The Tale of a Tiny Droplet by Ally Daanish illustrated by Oana Cocheci

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I would imagine if you were to pitch the idea of this book it would go very favorably.  A raindrop goes on an adventure to a desert kingdom after facing adversity for being small, an ocean wave wants to consume her, a chance encounter with a grain of sand and confidence in Allah swt to keep them safe leads to refuge being offered in an oyster who journeys them through the ocean to salam its inhabitants only to wash up near the palace and at the feet of a prince who has been searching for a treasure for his mother’s crown.  The problem comes in its delivery.  It is told in rhyme that is incredibly forced and trying to do too much.  It is a 32 page children’s picture book trying to blend religion, science, adventure, and two points of view.  It needs to be clear, not concerned with a rhyme scheme that muddles the themes.  The book has potential and with the QR code and online teaching resources I could see an Islamic school teacher using this to explain how a pearl is formed and the incredibleness of one of Allah’s creations, but it will take a lot of outside explanation.  I am confident that no four to six year old is going to independently understand clearly what is going on.  I myself had to read it multiple times to figure out what was going on, and even then I found more holes, inconsistencies, and head shaking then there should have been in a large, glossy, well illustrated, effort filled book.

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A tiny droplet wants to be free, but this personified little water being’s friends tell her only great things live in the kingdom and she is too small.  Not sure how greatness and physical size become synonymous, but they do apparently.  So, on a windy day, the raindrop jumps out of the sky to join the ocean as a means to reach the kingdom.  A hurricane, or wind gale, catches her and she collides with a grain of sand.  But the pov switches, and the sand collides with her and it hurts the sand.  Grain apologizes and Droplet says not to worry she she is heading to the ocean too.  Grain warns her that the ocean isn’t safe, that there is a big wave who will consume them.  Droplet says she isn’t afraid and trusts Allah swt will keep them safe.  The wave threatens to chase them with all its pride (?) if they dare to run and hide.  The pair find an oyster to hide in and they swim with the tide. The oyster is bothered by their tiny feet so he throws them a blanket.  The wave continues to give chase, but they trust Allah swt and after months and days they wash up on the kingdoms shore.

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The book then pivots and focuses on a young prince who is searching for a gem for his mother the Queen.  Her crown has lost its shine.  He has travelled for months and day through mountains and valleys to no avail. One day while walking, back home on the beach, he hears voices hoping for safety from the wave.  Droplet and Grain think the wave has perhaps finally got them, but it is the prince opening the oyster and finding just the gem he needs. The book concludes with the pearl saying “Alhumdulillah” to the distant stormy sky, “All things can live in the kingdom and its palace rising high.”

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So my questions, first I’m not sure how a droplet isn’t free, is there only one wave in the ocean? Who is talking at the end, obviously the anthropomorphism as a science lesson kind of hits a dead end, it went from two talking objects to one new talking object, so thats creepy.  Wouldn’t it have been better to end when the gem was found and then have an info or fact page highlighting how pearls are made, having two distinct characters morph into one is a bit jarring story wise. The concept of the kingdom not allowing in little things, and then concluding that all things are welcome, is also so painfully underdeveloped.  Even little readers are going to find that assumption so off the mark.  I like that they trust Allah, but Droplet keeps saying she isn’t scared, but continues to run? swim? The duo don’t want to be consumed, but essentially aren’t they consumed by the oyster? The Pearl feels like it beat the wave despite its size, but it was the other drops that were telling Droplet she was too small, not the wave.

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All confusion aside, my kids and I might just not be the ideal readers.  My six year old didn’t know what a pearl was, so he was incredibly confused.  I thought the book was going to be about the water cycle, so it took me a minute to realize that wasn’t where the story was going. There is a QR code on the front and if you go to the website a number of resources are available https://www.lotehouse.com/product-page/the-tale-of-a-tiny-droplet. I wish there was info within the binding though to explain the process of sand and water in an oyster making a pearl and I wish a heavy handed editor would have cleaned up the text.  Sadly, a potential great book mixing adventure, science and deen just really missed the mark.