This beautifully illustrated imaginative story focuses on Persian culture and a grandfather-granddaughter relationship. I have no idea if the characters, author, or illustrator identify as Muslim, the scarf on the grandma and the salaam greetings might just be cultural, but Muslim kids will see themselves in those words and images and thus I am reviewing the book. Young Miriam spends a week with her grandparents, Babajoon and Mamanjoon, every summer, and on this trip, she has reason to believe her grandpa is a pirate. The progression of Babajoon sharing his culture with his granddaughter who has misread the signs is silly, but honestly also a little sad. It seems she is very unaware of her family’s culture, not just generational details, but basics. The story itself is for kids, but I think parents will find a deeper message in the importance of maintaining cultural ties and familiarity no matter where our children are raised.
Miriam loves her week every summer with her grandparents, it is a magical adventure spending time with them at their tea shop. One day Miriam and her Babajoon head out for rocket pops and a mysterious gold coin falls out of her grandpa’s pocket. As they enjoy their popsicles, Babajoon starts singing with a parrot, and he has a secret language with an old friend before crystals are revealed, the only possible connection for the young girl, is that her grandfather is a pirate.
Babajoon reveals the cultural context of all the days adventures tying them back to his childhood in Iran. He encourages her to ask questions, and Miriam worries that she isn’t like her beloved Babajoon. His reassures her that they are alike and that they will teach each other, leaves the book with both appreciation and hope and a whole lot of love from a little girl to her family and culture.
There is a bit of a continuity issue for me as the little girl is excited her grandfather is a pirate, and then at the end, glad he isn’t. Also that she doesn’t know what Farsi sounds like or where her grandfather is from seems a little bit of a stretch as she herself calls them Babajoon and Mamajoon and says salaam to them. They also own a Persian tea shop called Aziz and the sign board is written in English and Farsi. If the little girl is aware enough and old enough to piece together the clues to discern that he is a pirate, clearly she recognizes the difference in the titles, foods, and clothing her grandparents wear to the larger society. I know, I’m being picky, but it took me a few readings to get past all that, and appreciate the story for what it is, and how beneficial it really can be to encourage children to ask about their family heritage and traditions.
The 40 page horizontal hardback book is beautiful to share in groups or one-on-one. The illustrations are enjoyable, and the pirate aspect will make this book a frequently requested read. You can preorder your copy here, after March 28, 2023 you can still purchase through that link.
The author of this wonderful middle grades novel reached out to me after I reviewed her book A Galaxy of Sea Stars, to let me know that this book too has a Muslim character. As we exchanged emails back and fourth I learned more about her work with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven Connecticut (IRIS), and the impact the people she has met there have on her and her writing (the new paperback version of Galaxy has bonus content that reflects this). Allies and advocates are gifts for Muslims and for our fictional representation. The details and warmth of her Muslim character, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, is seamless and accurate, and while this is not his story, his support of the main character helps normalize Muslims as friends and in daily life. He takes time out for his five daily prayers, he refuses to shake a female’s hand, and he uses the word inshaAllah. The story is Ruby’s though, and her journey pulls you in from the first chapter and leaves you cheering for her long after you close the book. Over 295 pages (AR 4.1) you witness Ruby find her voice, dare to not be invisible, accept friendship, and help others.
Ruby has just moved to frozen Vermont from their last “forever home” in Florida. Originally from D.C., Ruby and her mom have been moving to places they have vacationed to try and find joy. Since Ruby’s father, a police officer, died, the two of them have been broken and barely surviving. The only constant is a cousin, Cecy, who helps them out and convinces Ruby’s mom to come back to her childhood town of Fortin, and to be closer to her. The winter is bitter, the house is freezing, and even with Cecy arranging for Ruby’s mom to have a job, it only takes a day for Ruby’s mom to be arrested, fired, and for Ruby to be on her own. With only a garbage bag full of belongings, and some thrift store finds for warmth, Ruby’s plan is the same as it has been in every other town they have landed in: keep her head down and be invisible. Ruby’s dog, Bob, though has other plans, and when he takes off into a neighbor’s yard filled with ‘No Trespassing’ signs a meeting with Abigail takes place that will change Ruby.
Abigail Jacobs is known in Fortin as the “Bird Lady.” She has a home, but lives in a shed on her property, dresses in layers of scraps and scarves, feeds the birds, and keeps to herself. The rumor is that she killed her husband and daughter, everyone knows it, it could just never be proven. There are also stories that she has a moon rock. When Ruby meets her she is angry and cold, but the way she interacts with the animals and her knowledge of the moon, keeps her intrigued and even though Ruby’s mom forbids her from visiting Abigail, Ruby and her develop a friendship of sorts.
At school Ruby’s plan to go unnoticed is challenged by Ahmad Saleem, a refugee who lives with his uncle a grocery store owner and is teased by a few classmates for his accent and disappearances at lunch time when he goes to pray. He is kind and and determined to help Ruby and immediately declares her his friend. Ruby tries to avoid him, but eventually he starts to win her over. With the upcoming wax museum, a Fortin favorite, drawing near, Ruby tries to explain to her teacher that they will be leaving back to D.C. before the final presentation, but Mr. Andrews isn’t letting her off and somehow she finds herself researching Michael Collins, the astronaut that stayed on the space shuttle alone to circle the dark side of the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk.
With the mayor singling out Abigail with his new ordinances, Ruby’s mom deciding not to take the plea deal and fight her case at trail, the short cold days, the desire to return to D.C., the wax museum approaching, and Ruby needing answers, Ruby at some point will have to stand up and speak out.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the story unfolds in layers. You don’t know where it is going, but the slow peeling away shows the complexity of people and situations. The book doesn’t shy away from confronting stereotypes and looking beyond appearances. I like that there is some discussion of Islamophobia, when Ahmad is overheard speaking Arabic for example, but the character that needs the most standing-up for is an elderly white woman. The small pivot allows the book to avoid a familiar theme and shows the reader a Muslim shop owner helping the tattered woman that the town fears and resents. I enjoyed the strong reminder of how women and science and their careers have not been widely accepted until recently. I think many readers will be surprised that much of Abigail’s rumors stem from her being a brilliant educated woman that society struggled to respect then and now. I absolutely love the science and space aspects that bring Ruby Moon, her neighbor, and her class project together.
I wish there was a little bit more about her mom and her relationship at the end. The disconnect in their relationship warranted the sparse information in the majority of the story, but I needed some hope for the two of them. Same for the relationship with Cecy. I get that Ruby doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom’s cousin, but as Ruby grew in so many ways, I wish that her appreciation of what Cecy has done for her and her mom would have also been realized in some capacity.
Ruby being dishonest. Death, injury of a pet, physical assault, bullying, teasing, Islamophobia.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I probably wouldn’t focus an entire book club on this book, but I think it would be a great addition to a summer reading list. The insight into a character trying to find herself within her own family and experiences with connections to history and science would be a benefit to any child to read and reflect upon.
This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.
Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.
One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.
The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.
While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.
The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.
I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.
Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.