Tag Archives: bullying

Tittle Tattle Talia: A Story about Gossiping by Salwah Isaacs-Johaadien illustrated by Zeyneb Yildirim

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Tittle Tattle Talia: A Story about Gossiping by Salwah Isaacs-Johaadien illustrated by Zeyneb Yildirim

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I really enjoyed this Islamic moral book about gossiping.  Over the years I’ve taught a few Sunday school lessons, class lessons, and even hosted story times on the Islamic cautions regarding backbiting, and honestly I don’t think kids really grasp how easy it is to commit the act and be a part of it.  They understand they shouldn’t do it, what the punishment is, and that it is bad, but I don’t know that the materials I’ve used and seen, have really connected with younger kids without a lot of supplementing; and this book highlighted that we really can be messaging better on a child’s level.  The pages are incredibly text heavy, but neither I nor my audience seemed to mind until close to the end, because of the comedy and relatability of the story up to that point.  I think the coach getting overly involved took it back to being a lesson from adults and broke the child perspective tone.  I do love that the kids that listen to the gossip are also held accountable, the importance of the coach’s message clearly is important, but the story telling quality would have benefitted from a few tweaks.  The illustrations are cute, unfortunately the font is not very appealing.  I do like that the salwat is given in Arabic, and that Hadith are mentioned in the text as well as in the backmatter with an author’s note.

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The story starts with Talia owning that she loves to share tales about the people around her, before telling one to her older sister.  Her sister tries to stop her and tells her that she needs to watch what she says or she might one day have to eat her words.  Talia wonders what eating your words means.  Similar situations occur between Talia and her brother, her mother, as well as her father.  Each time the story is reprimanded and a funny euphuism remarked upon and then giggled about by Talia.

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At school she does the same, telling stories, often at the expense of a boy named Ahmed, and the more interest the other kids show, the more outrages her tales become.  She soon starts telling them about everyone, and her classmates and friends grow weary and fearful that they might be next.

It all comes to a climax when Talia’s classmates say enough is enough and stop talking to her, and go as far as refusing to pick her when picking teams, and playing with her at all.  The coach concludes then that the match should be cancelled and Talia should apologize.  The cancellations seems extreme, and the forcing to apologize almost takes away from the emotional realization that her “tales” have become bullying.

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As Talia leaves, her classmates gather up and she sees Ahmed not joining them.  When she gets to her front gate, her friends catch up to her and apologize and acknowledge their roles in perpetuating the gossip.  Talia then goes to find Ahmed and get him some ice cream to apologize.

I don’t quite think the friends needed to apologize, I think they should have just realized their role, I think with discussion it might be clarified, but I worry that it defers Talia’s ownership of wrong doing, and could send some mixed messages.

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It is also a little pausing that Talia makes up a story about why a girl wears hijab, when her own mother wears hijab and she is clearly Muslim.  On the one hand, I like that it shows how ridiculous her tales have gotten, but it also could seem like she is falling for a stereotype as well.  There is good rep in the illustrations of those that cover and those that don’t, there is a child in a wheelchair and lots of shades of skin colors and hair types.  The text also contains traditional Islamic names and some that are not.

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The book helps our children to be better and the story engaging enough to be memorable, that while I wish it was cleaned up a better to strengthen the writing, I do find it a benefit on a shelf to be shared at bedtime, in classrooms, in story times and as a reminder to not participate in gossip or listen to it.

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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This 152 page book reads like a historical fiction interfaith Magic Treehouse for middle grades tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I learned about Sephardic Jews, the language of Ladino, Prince Abdur Rahman, and a tiny bit about the Abbasids overthrowing the Ummayads.  I love that it starts with a map and ends with sources, facts about what information is real in the book and what is fiction, and a bit about Muslims and Jews and how to be an ally if you witness prejudice.  The book is co-authored, and in many ways the Jewish narrative does take the majority of the focus, but the Islamic phrases sprinkled in, the Islam practiced by a major character, and the setting, allow for both religions to shine and combine to make a compelling magical time traveling story for third graders (and their parents) and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Cousins Ava and Nadeem are in fifth grade and spend their afternoons afterschool with their Granny Buena.  Granny and Ava are Jewish and Nadeem is Muslim, though they believe differently, they always seem to find more that is the same, and respect is always given.  When they face bullying at school Granny Buena pulls out a crystal box full of buttons and tells the children, and the cat Sheba a tale about their ancestor Ester ibn Evram.  When she stops the story short, the two kids exam the button closer and find themselves back in time tasked with saving Prince Abdur Rahman and getting him from Africa to Spain.  They aren’t sure if that will be enough to get them back to their own time though, but they don’t have time to overthink it because if they fail, the Golden Age of Islam won’t happen, peace won’t come to Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the region, and their Jewish ancestors may face the backlash of helping the Muslim escape.  Along the way, they learn about their own family traditions, beliefs, and gain wisdom to handle their bullying problem at school.

WHY I LIIKE IT:

I love that I learned so much, and from what I could Google and ask about from those more knowledgeable, the facts about the time period and cultures all seem to check out.  Only one passage comparing Jewish belief and the text of the Quran is phrased oddly in my opinion, the rest of the Islamic sprinkling is well done.  There are numerous bismillahs, mashaAllahs, stopping for salat, quoting of the Quran and more.  The narrative is primarily Jewish, but the setting Islamic with athans being called and Salams being given.  The book does have a lot of Jewish detail, but I don’t think it was preachy, and the further uniqueness of Ladino words and culture I think would appeal to all readers no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are with the two religions.

There are some questions that as an adult reader I wanted to know more about: how Nadeem and his mom are practicing Muslims in a strong Jewish family, how making sure history happened as it happened the first time sent the two kids back…then why were they sent there at all, is there going to be more button adventures, were their two cats or was it the same cat?   Honestly, a lot of the more obvious fantasy plot holes were accounted for and done quickly and simply: how their clothes changed but the button remained, how they could speak the language, how confused their aunt would be when her real niece and nephew arrived, etc.. The writing quality kept it all clear for the reader, and did so without the pacing of the story suffering.

FLAGS:

Near death experience, magic, mention of killing, fear, deception, bullying, fighting, physical altercation, misogynistic assumptions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great story to share if I return to the classroom. The history, the religions, the storytelling would provide so much to connect to and learn about.  As a book club selection though, it would be too young for our middle school readers and ultimately too short.  I would consider it for a read a loud with fourth and fifth grade.

To Purchase: Here is the Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3D9LyxI

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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I really thought this book was a middle school book when I picked it up: the cover illustration, the length (265 pages), the larger font and generous spacing, but then I started reading it and the first two chapters alone have cursing, underage drinking, mention of sex and making out, straight and lesbian couples, and bullying.  The main character’s voice was enjoyable enough and the writing smooth, so I kept reading, but ultimately, I don’t know that high schoolers will find the climax that griping, and it definitely isn’t for middle schoolers, so I’m not sure who the target audience is.  The character never identifies as Muslim, nor does he correct or clarify to the many people around him that assume he is Muslim.  His deceased father was Arab Christian and his mother, Iranian Muslim that doesn’t “speak to God much since (his) dad died,” yet he is the victim of Islamaphobia and bullied as being a terrorist.  Pork is put in his locker, a doctored image of him dressed as an extremist is emailed out to the entire school, but he never says I am Muslim or I am not Muslim.  Perhaps when dealing with ridiculous bullies it doesn’t matter, but even commenting on that would, for me, have given the book more purpose.  The book was a quick easy read, and I enjoyed the basketball aspects and a few of the characters, but the constant drinking, predictability, and lack of intensity renders the book rather forgettable.  I’m only reviewing it so that if other’s see it and assume it is a middle school sports book that they will be aware that it is for older readers, has a decent amount of gay and straight non graphic romance, a lot of alcohol use, and crude talk.

SYNOPSIS:

Bijan is on loan to the Varsity basketball team from JV and when the star player gets in foul trouble, he is put in.  Bijan is a decent player, and when his intensity brings the team within range of a win and his winning shot seals the victory, Bijan is no longer just another face in the crowd at his private school, he is getting a lot of attention.  Most of the attention is initially appreciated, parties, a chance to talk to his crush Elle, leniency in turning in assignments, but things quickly change when a manipulated image is sent out to the entire school community- students, teachers, faculty, alumni, board- showing Bijan as a terrorist.  Was he targeted because of his brown skin, his instant popularity, his volunteering with a committee to change the school mascot from the Gunners to something less violent? The school says they will try and find the culprit, but it doesn’t look hopeful and Bijan just wants it to all go away. 

Bijan’s new stardom has him hanging out with the Varsity team after games and suddenly interfering with their social life. Bijan gets in a fight with a teammate, breaks up a fight between a teammate and his girlfriend, and finds himself being teased for being Muslim and brown.  The school is predominately white and Bijan stands out.  He notes who says his name, and who conveniently avoids it.  Physical altercations elevate whenever alcohol is present, which is often, but no clear motive is established.   The students’ parents are involved in trying to force the school to be more proactive against bullying and the board, staff and students squabble over the mascot. When Drew’s girlfriend breaks up for him in favor of a girl, another email is sent out shaming the girls’ relationship. Bijan and friends figure out who is responsible and everyone concludes that the two emails were sent by the same person, but Bijan has his doubts. 

The school basketball team makes it into the New England tournament and with the team on the road, the alcohol and physical assaults on and off the court escalate. When the opposing team’s fans dress up in turbans and beards and chant USA, Bijan has had enough and refuses to play.  He confronts his coach about never saying his name, and when they return to school the culprit of the email and of the pork in the locker is identified.  Bijan gives a speech about not being a terrorist while internally thinking of parts of the Quran and stats that he could be sharing, but isn’t.  Spoiler: he also gets the girl.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it isn’t a nerd to hero story that it so easily could have been.  Bijan is smart and clever and grounded.  He is a solid basketball player and has his flaws as well as his strengths.  It doesn’t seem that popularity has changed him, people are just now noticing him.  I enjoyed his wit and humor and friendship with Sean.  The commentary in Bijan’s head, voiced by NBA commentators, reflects what he feels and what he thinks, it is critical and entertaining and gives a great vehicle into conveying his thoughts.  

I felt a fair amount of the plot was predictable and obvious.  It was clear pretty quickly that Erin and Stephanie were in to each other, that Noah was jealous and capable of sabotage.  Drew had his own financial concerns, but seemed to obviously be the red herring to Jessica’s privilege.  Even the email and the taunting seemed fairly tame, Bijan himself didn’t seem that bothered by the email. Not saying it is ok, but in a book where the characters are drinking and filling lockers with meat, the severity wasn’t that gravitating.  And about the meat, I think it warranted more discussion.  Whether the pork offended him on a religious level or not, meat or food or anything of that magnitude stuffed into a gym locker is worthy of freaking out over.  

Bijan never says he is Muslim, he does remark that he doesn’t read Arabic or Farsi.  He doesn’t drink at the first few parties because he is terrified his mom will freak out.  He drinks at a later party.  At one party someone remarks that “Allah won’t mind,” and he doesn’t really respond.  His mom, it is hinted at, has been hung over before and may have drunk in high school and consumes wine at her book club.  When Bijan and Elle are figuring things out between them, she wonders if it is ok because of…and it kind of trails off to imply perhaps his religion, to which there really isn’t a response.

FLAGS:

Drinking alcohol, language, relationships (straight and lesbian), crude jokes and references.  There is kissing between a boy and a girl and two girls that is overheard by the main character.  Sex and making out are referenced but not detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a middle school book club or suggest it for the high schoolers.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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A Galaxy of Sea Stars by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

This middle grade, 330 page book is an easy read that touches on concepts of change within friendships and families with the back drop of life in a coastal town, finding courage, and Islamaphobia. While early middle school readers might find the book a bit predictable and cliche’, the characters, lessons, and fluid storytelling would still make the book worth their time.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Izzy spends her summer days in Rhode Island on her skiff mapping out the floor of the pond that runs next to the ocean. Fearful of the open ocean, she is, however, confident and independent in her abilities to navigate the calmer water and understand what is beneath the surface. Her father has recently returned from Afghanistan and with his post traumatic stress disorder making him angry and not the same as before. Izzy is further thrown into turmoil when the family moves out of their house and into the marina, her mother extends her already summer long absence to Block Island and middle school at a new regional school is about to start. As always she hopes to lean on her fellow sea stars, Zelda and Piper, best friends since kindergarten, however, things with them don’t quite seem the same either. Add in that her father’s translator from Afghanistan and his family have just moved in upstairs with their two young boys and 11 year old daughter Sitara, and Izzy has a lot to handle and navigate.

Piper and Zelda decide to take television production class first period to make sure they have at least one class together, Izzy is incredibly shy and while she appreciates that this has all been arranged she isn’t confident that it is a good fit for her. Dragged along, as it seems she often is by her much more confident friends, It is arranged that Sitara will also be in the class. Right away Piper and Zelda decide that they don’t like Sitara and her hijab and her “different-ness” and exclude her and by extension Izzy from their lives. As Sitara and Izzy get closer and start to learn from one another, Piper and Zelda lash out and go from ignoring to being mean to Izzy and Sitara. Sitara explains to people on the announcement show why she covers and helps Izzy to understand that her father was in danger after helping the Americans and that they had to leave Afghanistan. The anniversary of 9/11 however, turns many students into verbally berating Sitara and her having her hijab pulled off in the lunchroom. When Izzy figures out that her former sea stars were involved in the planning she is devastated and must take the lessons from Sitara and her Czech Grandma to have more courage than fear, find her voice, and do something to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Izzy has a lot going on in her life and in many ways Sitara has been through a lot, allowing them to encourage each other to keep moving forward. There are some parallels in losing their homes and dealing with change that they comfort each other with, but the two characters combined show readers that strength and bravery occurs when you are afraid, and that most people aren’t truly fearless. I really feel for Izzy, her friends may have been there for her on occasion, but by and large they seem kind of dismissive of her and her fears. I think she sees them as equal, but I don’t get the feeling that they see her that way, they may be protective of her, but they kind of bully her in to doing what they want. Every few chapters is a flashback to a pivotal point in the sea stars friendship and even before Sitara enters the dynamic, I started to question Piper and Zeldas sincerity. Their best friend just moved, her dad came back from serving in Afghanistan, and her mom is not coming home, they should be concerned, not belittling her for liking art and wearing old clothes. The mom is another painful plot point, like lady I get that you have stuff going on in your life, but really you are just going to leave your child? Ya, I wasn’t a fan of hers.

I like that the story addresses Islam and Islamaphobia, and while it is very much in the story, it isn’t really about it. Izzy is front and center, and even she takes a while to warm up to Sitara. I love that it shows what Afghanis that helped fight against the Taliban went through and how painful it is for them to resume life after doing so. I think this point is so lost in mainstream understanding whenever there is a terrorist attack, that this is what the refugees are leaving, that people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria are running from, and when they get called terrorist it hurts that much more, because their whole lives and people they care for have suffered from the real terrorists.

I really wish there was a map, I wanted to visualize better the breachway and had I not lived in Rhode Island for a few years I probably wouldn’t have understood Block Island’s location to to the mainland. Like with so many middle grade novels I wish there was some more depth to the characters, but I truly appreciated that there wasn’t a completely happy ending, and that growth occurred in so many characters, but at different rates. It really made it clear that we all need to continuously work to get to know one another, find our voice, our courage, and be willing to change.

FLAGS:

Clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t do an elementary book club, but I think this would be a great recommendation for those that do. There is a lot to discuss and explore that kids can relate to. The majority of the characters are female, but I think the themes are universal enough that boys will enjoy the book as well. I’m confident all readers will learn something new about sea stars and possibly even television production in this sweet story.

No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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This YA Fiction book by a Muslim author filled with many Muslim characters has a lot going for it, and while I didn’t love it, and felt that it was trying to do too much in 304 pages, I think most early high school readers will enjoy the cyber hacking plot, the islamaphobia and white supremacy themes that keep the book fast paced, relatable and timely.  The main character is a Muslim and has a Muslim boyfriend and all family members are fine with it, she also gets a tattoo with her mother’s permission and breaks the law, but usually with worthy motives.

SYNOPSIS:

Salma Bakkioui is the high school aged daughter of a North African father and convert mother.  They go to the mosque a few times a year, but don’t really practice, it is more heritage than actual intentional praying five times a day, yet somehow ayats from the Quran and hadith do float in and out of the story.  It is Ramadan, and the Muslims in the book are fasting except for Salma, who suffers from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) a connective tissue disorder, her best friend Mariam, who lived next door has just moved away because her father’s chiropractic business was failing due to racism and Islamaphobia.  Salma tried to use her hacker skills to send him more business, but ultimately they moved to the UAE.  Amir, the supportive boyfriend, oud player, and fellow Edward Norton fan is steady and good and constant.  As are her partying friend Vanessa, her physical therapist and her daughter, unfortunately, things are about to get really crazy, really fast.

When Salma and Amir go over to meet the new neighbors that have moved in to Mariam’s old house the blaring TV broadcasts a terrorist bombing nearby in DC.  The neighbors seem nice, but something is off about them, and Salma can’t quite figure it out.  From the dad and son’s matching number tattoos, the mom’s nervous behavior, and snippets of overheard conversations, it becomes apparent that something infact fishy is going on.  Salma and her younger siblings start getting bullied by classmates, and teachers and administrators turn a blind eye, cops interrogate Salma at school, and illegal snooping on the dark web reveal that the neighbors aren’t as innocent as they claim. As more and more is uncovered about the neighbors, Salma learns that she better have a plan to get out, as she is about to be framed for a lot of destruction as the new face of Islamic extremism.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Salma is relevant and relatable, and while I know a lot about her family and friends, and illness, for some reason I don’t feel invested in her, and I am totally willing to conceded that that is on me, and others would really identify with her, but for some reason as much as I wanted to connect with her, I didn’t.  The supporting cast is fairly fleshed out, I’m not entirely sure why Dora and Boots are highlighted so much and I didn’t feel a tug on the emotional heartstrings of Mariam leaving, of Amir leaving, of Salma possibly saying good-bye.  I felt like even Salma and Amir being a couple and being connected through Edward Norton and Fight Club was a bit forced.  I didn’t feel it was organic or natural, it was almost like the author was trying to make a point of Muslim youth having relationships, and finding imams that were ok with tattoos. Rather than it being a plot point it seemed like it was trying to voice the author’s perspective whether it fit smoothly into the storyline or not.

I do like the tech and and the parallels between extremism whether Islamic or Christian, foreign or domestic, that drove the action of the book.  The unraveling of pieces and connections seemed a bit rushed, with unnecessary tangents affecting the pacing overall of the book, but at least there were answers to help it all make sense at the end, and make the story feel complete.

Having never written a book, I don’t know if some of the hiccups are first novel related, but I really hope the author keeps writing and keeps changing up what the mainstream Muslim protagonist lead consists of.  I love that Salma is smart and level headed and aware of her world, while still growing and owning up to her faults.  It isn’t a coming of age story, but she sets a great precedence for continued growth, loving your family and trusting yourself too. I particularly like the nuances in racism.  Some of the kids at school are jerks and bullies, some staff and teachers are bigoted and prejudice, but the right wing conspiracy groups are actively working, and their level of hatred and intelligence to mask it is great to see in a YA book.

FLAGS:

Relationships, kissing, references to marijuana brownies being consumed, violence, cursing, lying, illegal activity.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I can’t use this book as a book club selection since the two main characters are making out in the first chapter, but the book really is more than a relationship story and I would be ok with my young teen reading it.  The illegal hacking is more problematic then helpful in the end, and the language, and other deviant behaviors exhibited aren’t done for shock value alone, I think a discussion after the book would be great: privacy, hate, conspiracy, faith, religion, friendships, etc.

 

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

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Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

bunchesA book about 5th grade friendships told from the perspective of four different girls in a variety of styles: instant messages, chatroom conversations, video scripts, and traditional text.  The author seems to have a checklist of diverse characters and afflictions that all must make an appearance in the 335 page story.  It is written on an AR 4.4, but with one of the main characters having two moms, details of a suicide mentioned, talk of pole dancing, male anatomy joked about, thongs, crushes, and mental illness, four girls coming together to form friendships and take down a bully, might raise more questions for young readers than they are ready to handle.  Yasaman the Muslim girl in the group, also borders on perpetuating more stereotypes than she breaks, and while I definitely don’t think this book is a good fit for 4th and 5th graders, I don’t really recommend it for readers of any age, there are just better books out there.

SYNOPSIS:

Asian American Katie-Rose doesn’t have friends, unless you count her neighbor Max, but she doesn’t.  She dreams of having blond haired Camilla as a best friend, but the Camilla she went to Pioneer camp with is not the Milla at school who hangs out with Modessa (aka Medussa) and Quin, and is popular.  Katie-Rose also dreams about being a cinematographer or director, she isn’t sure yet, but she loves to imagine scenes and scripts and how things ideally should play out, even when in reality they never quite seem to do so.

Milla, isn’t sure if she wants to stay friends with Modessa and Quin, they aren’t nice and she has a lot more fun with Katie-Rose, but somehow she always ends up going back to the popular crowd.  She also has a lot of anxiety and needs various totems with her at all time to feel secure.  When her little plastic turtle goes missing, she struggles to stay composed, and her and her turtle will end up changing a lot at Rivendell Elementary.

Violet, is the new girl at school and she is not liking her life at home or at school.  Her mom is in a mental hospital and she misses her desperately, her dad brings home fast food every night for dinner and life just isn’t the same since she moved to California.  Immediately able to tell who the popular kids are at school, she hasn’t decided which group of friends is the best fit for her, but when she stumbles on Tally the turtle, and doesn’t immediately return it to Milla, she has to understand what that says about her, and figure out if she is strong enough to make things right.

Yasaman is the quiet computer wiz, she is also Turkish-American, Muslim, and a hijabi.  She designs a platform where kids who are too young to join Facebook can chat, stream videos and send cupcakes.  The only problem is, she has no friends to get to join.  When Katie-Rose and her strike up a friendship, the first seeds of the four flower named girls are planted, but it will take all four of them to put Modessa in her place, rescue Tally, and deal with stereotypes, emotions, and family along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslim, muhajaba is included in the quartet, and that her religion, her scarf, her culture, and her belief in Allah, actually are sprinkled in.  I don’t love how in the book’s efforts to include such diversity, that it also seems to fall for a lot of the stereotypes that it on the surface seems to be dispelling.  Katie-Rose asks her if she even knows what YouTube is before being made aware of how computer savvy she is.  All this is to subtly show the assumption that Muslims are not aware of technology and whatnot, and set the record straight, but also regularly thrown in are side comments from Yasaman that her father would never let her wear something, or she wouldn’t be allowed to do that because of her dad, definitely reinforcing a male dominated, authoritarian, out-of-touch patriarchal view.  Even her mother, an artist, is shown to demand a lot of Yasaman and be incredibly strict.  A lot of things aren’t spelled out, they are just dropped in and assumed that the reader get’s it.  But only Yasaman’s parents are portrayed this way.  Milla’s two mom’s are caring, Violet and her dad seem close, and Katie-Rose’s parents are rarely highlighted.  So, I felt like it was noticeable, and not in a positive way.

I’m still completely confused as why pole dancing and male anatomy made appearances in the book.  And the pole dancing reference appeared not once, but twice when Yasaman is talking to an older cousin who is talking about a friend who’s aunt is a pole dancer, and then later when Katie-Rose’s babysitter also mentions the same friend.  They also discuss people as being slutty and boy crazy and skanky.  The male anatomy isn’t spelled out it is hidden with a girl with major orthodontia reading a Wikapedia page on the greek satyrs, discussing their physical pleasures and talents.

There is also a lot of mental health issues that I’m glad are present, but I’m not sure if they are handled seriously enough.  I’m glad they are addressed, because awareness is a good thing, but discussing how someone swallowed pills to commit suicide and even though she changed her mind still died, and not giving any context seems to make the concept come across as a bit trivial to me in its presentation.  Same goes for Camilla’s anxiety and Violet’s mom being in a mental hospital.  These girls have some major stuff going on that their preoccupation with a snotty group of girls, and the obsession of mud being consumed in an ice cream shake, seems a bit off.

Overall, the girls seem incredible perceptive and articulate in their self reflection and understanding of social personas, that I found their banter completely disjointed.  I don’t think the author’s voice is consistent, and the heavy stuff is too much coming from 5th graders in my opinion.

FLAGS:

Stereotypes, and discrimination against Yasaman and her younger sister Nigar.  Possible triggers with talk of suicide.  Milla has two moms, it is never labeled or made an issue, she just refers to them as Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. Talk of boy private parts and erections, crushes, pole dancing, words such as skanky, and slutty and dingleberry (poop hanging on) used.  There is lying and bullying and retaliation and poetic justice.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a book club or even have it in the classroom.  I think it gets a bit crass unnecessarily and the cute flowery cover and inside flap, makes it all the more surprising.  You might expect some potty humor in other books, but knowing it is there allows the reader to make a decision to read it or not, I would imagine most Muslim parents would see four diverse girls on the cover, one wearing hijab, get excited and hand the book to their 3rd or 4th or 5th grade daughter and have no idea what the book also includes in passing, with no relevance to the story lines highlighted on the inside flaps and back of the book.

Piece by Afshan Malik

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Piece by Afshan Malik

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This 168 page young adult book from Daybreak Press focuses on a small Muslim family in Texas, that has their own stresses and interpersonal relationships, but are thrown in to a whirlwind when the father of the family returns home from a medical mission to Syria and finds himself in the psych ward broken and troubled.  The effects each of the character’s struggles have on them as well as those they care about, makes for a haunting yet relatable read for fourteen year olds and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The Jamal family is made up of Hannah and her older high school aged sister Noreen and their physician parents Dahlia and Adam.  Hannah runs track and is more introverted in handling friends and her father’s life altering condition.  Noreen on the other hand is ultra organized and rational in her approach to life, much more like her OB mother.  To cope with the stress of her father’s return she commits herself to more clubs at school and staring at her phone.

Hannah doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and when the track team understands that Hannah’s dad is dead and Hannah doesn’t correct them until later, her comfortable acquaintances turn on her and she will have to learn to stand up for herself and use her voice in the course of the book.  Noreen’s character arc is a bit more dramatic as her involvement in yearbook club brings new people in to her life, mainly a boy, who might not be as a genuine in his goals as she is, and thus their climax results in a trip to the police station.  Dahlia has a close friend, and Adam has a few as well, but the story really stays pretty streamline in exploring the relationships of the family and how little things and big things affect them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book takes on a serious issue like PTSD and is framed in such reality.  The scene where the dad blurs his past memories with the current real happenings, is done very well.  It conveys how fractured his brain is while showing the stress his situation lends to the mood of the home is powerful. There is also a very real situation of attempted physical and sexual assault that occurs when Noreen finds herself in a position with a male classmate who attempts to take advantage of her.  The book holds back in details, and she is able to defend herself, keeping the book clean, while still implying what his intent was, and how fortunate she is to get away.

More superficially, but also more relatable is the girls bickering and fighting and pushing each other’s buttons, and the mom trying to help, but is alas is frequently at a loss at what to do with them.  The situations the girls face at school are probable and relatable that I think a lot of middle school and high school readers will see themselves trying to balance extra curricular activities, friends, finding a quite place to pray and keeping their hijabs coordinating.  The family is Muslim and they dress the part, talk the talk, and pray together regularly.  Islam is very present, but not preachy, it is just what the characters believe and what they use to shape their view of many of the tests they are facing.

There are a few hiccups that are worth noting, but don’t overly deter for my appreciation of the story.  I struggled with the writing style in the first few chapters.  It took a bit to feel a connection to the characters and get what was going on sorted out.  It is written in 3rd person omniscient (I believe, it’s been a while) with each chapter more or less focusing on one of the four main characters.  As a result a handful of times the narrative gets awkward in explaining what one of the characters is doing or thinking, because the focus is on someone else, or the timeline overlaps a bit.  It doesn’t happen an awful lot, but the book is under 200 pages, so it is annoying that it happens at all, let alone more than once.

Story wise the characters seem oddly isolated.  The book tells us how small the town is, and shows us how everyone knows the parents regularly, the girls seem to be pretty lonely.  There isn’t any warmth from the schools or neighbors in helping them deal with their dad coming home so wounded.  In a town they have lived in for so long, this seems off to me.  Also if the town is so small, and the family so religious, there is an imam who visits once, you’d think there would be more of an Islamic community presence for the mom and girls to find support from.

FLAGS:

There is violence in the remembering of what happened in Syria.  There is some Islamaphobic talk as Hannah endures some verbal bullying and the attempted physical and sexual assault on Noreen.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this as a possible middle school book club choice.   It tackless some big things, and uses Islamic boundaries to talk about mental illness and sexual violence which is a huge plus when addressing our youth.  Noreen isn’t in a relationship or even overtly infatuated with the guy who puts her in a compromising situation.  But even if she was doing something “wrong” what he did is not ok, and the fact that the authorities believe her, and she plans to discuss it with her mom, and she is not further victimized by speaking out, is something our kids need to see and understand.

There are discussion questions at the end and I think males and females will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  Unfortunately, and possibly the only other disappointment in the book is the price.  Nearly twenty bucks for a short YA paperback book makes it hard to buy classroom sets for such activities, and I’m sure will even keep the avid reader debating whether they should purchase it or not.

 

Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart

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Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red by Rosemary McCarney illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart

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This book is nearly the mirror of Nanni’s Hijab, just told from a different perspective and swapping out the heroine.  Written in 2015 this book definitely came out first, and while the 24 page book is targeted for  4-8 year olds, if your teaching point of view, this book and Nanni’s hijab could be used for older kids to make for a great lesson.  

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I love that this book is written by a non Muslim and the main character is non Muslim.  The binding the pictures, the size, all make this a wonderful addition to any library in showing that differences can and should be celebrated.

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Rosie loves wearing her red cape, and she loves looking at things from all angles and perspectives.  One day at school she arrives at school to see kids making fun of the new girl, Fadimata and her hijab.  

Unable to stop the kids she reaches out to Fadimata, and transforms her cape into a hijab in solidarity.  After the teacher also talks to the class about being kind, the next day is a surprise for Rosie, when many of the girls are wearing scarves and hijabs in a variety of manners to show acceptance and celebrate differences.

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This is the first book in a Rosie the Red Series, and I kinda really love that in the second book, Being Me, about volunteering at a food pantry and helping a friend, Fadimata is minor character.  She is now one of Rosie’s best friends and is both mentioned by name and illustrated.  This is awesome to me, because while books about Muslims are great, having us be in books as supporting characters solving other problems, learning lessons, and going on adventures, makes us more mainstream and inshaAllah part of the accepted landscape.

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*Side note, if you look at this book on Amazon, and read the comments you can see how truly upset many people are by this book calling it “indoctrination” and criticizing it for not encouraging assimilation.  If you read the book and like it, and like the tone and message it promotes, maybe write a review, and make the world a little warmer.

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Often these days, minority groups are feeling more and more marginalized in a blaring world that is increasingly divisive and polarized.  So to see a book in my child’s Scholastic Magazine with a muhajaba on the cover, and not a main character, in a book about bullying, where she isn’t the instigator or recipient, made my minority heart swell with hope.  This 238 page graphic novel (AR 2.8) is a quick, quick read for middle schoolers, and one with a good message, that is more self empowering than preachy.  A companion book to Awkward (which I haven’t read, but hope to soon), the author takes us into Middle School through the eyes of Jensen, a kid who is struggling to find his place and escapes into his daydreams to conquer every day stresses.

 

SYNOPSIS:

Jensen wants to be a NASA scientist, but he isn’t good at math.  He loves to draw, but the Art Club is consumed with an upcoming event he knows nothing about, he is harassed by two bullies every chance they get, and occasionally he is asked by the newspaper staff to do menial work.  Yet, somehow despite having no friends, and a constant barrage of things going against him, he doesn’t see himself as a victim or as the recipient of bullying.  Rather, he falls into regular day dreams where he is the main character in a video game and all these battles have to be overcome to reach the end.  The surrounding characters have their own little stories, and you get to know a bit about them through Jensen, but the author doesn’t let any of them be painted with a singular stroke.  You see the athletes, being kind and sticking up for kids getting picked on, one being a math wiz.  The journalism staff of Jenny, Akila, and Felipe, run the school, but have their own stresses and internal struggles.  The circle of activity comes to a head when a student is expelled over the dress code, and all the various groups in Jensen’s world have to come together to make change.  In the process he realizes that he is being bullied, and that something needs to be done.  He also realizes nobody has it all together and he has a part to do to help others as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

First I like it because there are Muslims in the book, that are just characters in the book.  They don’t represent all Muslims, they aren’t “different” or “other.”  Akila wants to be a journalist and she is smart, and she is kind, but she fights with her best friend, the bossy Jenny, and it is Jensen that has to help them see their errors.  I also like that the P.E. teacher, Mrs. Rashad, is a hijab wearing Muslim, that beats the social studies teacher in push-ups. I mean what an amazing way to break a hundred stereotypes, by not mentioning them, and just showing them as normal. A muslim woman, working, being physical fabulous, and being modest, ya we need more of this. There is no mention of their religion, their clothing, their hijabs, nothing.

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I also like that the students in some cases didn’t realize that they were bullying.  I think this happens a lot, where maybe someone won’t let you sit by them because they are saving a seat for someone else, but the second or third time it happens, the recipient feels alienated, where the aggressor may not even be aware.  The book explores lots of ways of bullying, but because it is filtered through the character, it leaves a lot of room for discussion about how people treat us, and how we treat others, and where a lot of pain can come from the misinterpretation on both ends.

There is a lot of diversity in the book, boys, girls, skin tones, body sizes, physical abilities, handicaps, intelligence, etc. that come up to varying degrees, but do at least offer the readers real ways to see themselves in the pages.  The book has a very tidy, happily ever after feel, which is ok I think for middle school. The book has a specific audience. Elementary will just find everyone mean, high schoolers will find it childish, but as social relationships get more challenging in middle school, I think this demographic will often have to find the courage to be brave to get through unscathed.

FLAGS:

None. One character has a boyfriend, maybe. But it is clean with pretty much everything, it even says for All Ages ont he back.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club book.  I don’t think it would need any prompting or guides. My 6th grade daughter said it was “ok” yet has brought it up at least ten times since she read it, and has come and sat by me to watch me read it.  I think, she has had some similar issues and to be able to talk about them through the characters, has been liberating for her, and furthered my conviction that fiction has power.

The Author’s website: https://svetlania.com/