Tag Archives: death

Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond

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Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond

hungry hearts

Occasionally I get asked about short story and/or essay from a collection that a college or high school student is hoping to share with a class that doesn’t take long to read, but shows Islamic representation.  And I never have a suggestion.  The middle grade collection Once Upon an Eid is amazing, but for younger readers.  When I learned about this collection that features two known Muslim authors, Karuna Riazi (The Gauntlet series) and S.K. Ali (Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z), and involves food, I thought to take a look and see if I might finally have a suggestion.  Sadly, no.  None of the 13 stories wowed me, or really impressed.  A few I started then skipped, and none were really memorable.  The premise is unique: all the stories take place in the same neighborhood, feature food, and crossover characters, but some are love stories, others redemption, some have super heroes, others murder and gang violence, some really keep the food central, and others just mention it as being present.  There is familial love, romantic straight, lesbian, and trans love, there is friendship and food from many cultures served up to varying effects.  I admittedly read few short story collections, but even with that taken in to consideration, I think skipping this 353 page YA/Teen book is probably the best option.

SYNOPSIS:

I’ll only summarize the two Muslim authored stories.  A few of the others are culturally Indian, but they eat pork, so I’m assuming they are not Muslim, and the Persian one by Sara Farizan features alcohol and a lesbian romance, so since in a past book of hers I noted that I didn’t know if she or her characters identify as Muslim, I will skip reviewing hers as well.

Hearts a’ la Carte by Karuna Riazi:   Munira works at her families food cart, King of Kuisine and serves up Egyptian food to the people on Hungry Heart Row.  When a guy falls from the sky, she finds her self also falling hard for Hasan, as he regularly starts coming to eat and visit, but when it is revealed that he is a super hero (the Comet) and the reason her families cart is destroyed, Munira is not willing to pursue things further.

A Bountiful Film by S.K. Ali: Hania and her family have recently moved to Hungry Heart Row, where her father grew up and grandma Valimma lives.  Irritated that she had to leave her school, her job at Daily Harvest and friends behind, Hania is hoping to lose herself in putting together her film for the upcoming competition and beating her long time rival Gabrielle Rose.  With no clear idea of what her film should be about she starts with interviewing Valimma and her friends, which turns up a bit of an unsolved mystery involving a missing boy that keeps showing up on the security footage from local businesses.  Hania decides to pursue it, but finds herself being watched, and filmed in the process.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the stories are interconnected, I don’t know that it works, but I like the idea of it.  As for the two Muslim authored stories, I like that Islam and culture are included slightly, but that the story is much more than that, and the characters have more pressing issues to figure out.  I wish in both of these two stories, food was more fleshed out.  They seemed to be lacking the magical food premise that many other stories in the collection had.

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FLAGS:

See above paragraph for some collection flags.  Riazi’s story has crushes and a budding romance, but nothing overtly “haram.” Ali’s story is clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t probably even shelve the book in our Islamic school library, it doesn’t offer much in my opinion.

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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The hype is correct: this book is moving, impactful, powerful, reflective, all the feels.  The writing superb, the plot gritty, the characters seem real, so real.  One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving because every word seems deliberate in his books, not every plot point or every paragraph, every. single. word.  And it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that strikes me in that same vein of the author being so in control of the story, and my (the reader’s) emotions being so completely at the mercy of the words to come.  I think I could read this book five more times and each time peel back a new layer and see something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before.  I cried, I cheered, I sighed and unclenched my jaw, and I am still haunted by the lives of the characters.  Not just the “main” ones.  All of them, they all are real and fleshed out and have character arcs and live in shades of gray.  There are no checkboxes for skin tone or religion or sexual preference they each are more than a label, they are complex and real.  I could easily be convinced that they are in fact real people and that their world and stories are not fiction at all.  That is how well it reads, that is how hard it is to close the window on the world they let us see.  The book is YA (374 pages) and with the drugs, abuse, alcohol, relationship, complexities of it all, I would think 16 year old’s and up can, strike that, should, read this book.  The characters are Muslim, but it never even goes near being preachy, these are complex characters and stories, and remarkably there is no internalized Islamophobia or watering anything down, each character deals with faith, like everything else, in their own way.

SYNOPSIS:

The story bounces between the past in Lahore, Pakistan and the present in Juniper, California.  In Lahore it is Misbah’s story and in the desert it is her son’s, Salahudin and a girl she has taken under her wing, Noor’s.  When the book starts we see Sal with a drunk father dropping him off at school where his girlfriend is waiting, and his best friend, Noor, not speaking to him for the last few months after she confessed to bein in love with him.  Noor lives with her uncle after her entire village in Pakistan was destroyed when she was 6, and he wants nothing to do with Pakistan, Islam, or Noor going to college.  He owns a liquor store and makes Noor work there.  Sal’s mom is sick and has always been their for Noor, so when she takes a turn for the worse, Noor and Sal are brought back together, Noor’s uncle is enraged that she is missing shifts, and Sal’s father is constantly searching for the bottom of a bottle.  Things are bad, but they are about to get a whole lot worse.  Sal’s mom dies, the motel Sal’s family owns is in severe debt and the options for saving it are less than ideal.  The small town starts to feel familiar as everyone’s stories are fleshed out in Juniper and Lahore and two star-crossed narrators are forced to confront both the stresses of high school and impending adulthood, and deep, dark realities of abuse, loss, and generational trauma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could have been a thousand pages, and it still would have felt too short.  Much like her fantasy writing, the book seems to start with world building and roping the reader in to thinking that they can handle what is about to come, then much like a band-aid being pulled off, the pain hits, and the wound starts bleeding again.  Somehow despite it all, you can’t look away, you can’t stop reading, there is hope.  Hope for the characters, hope for happy endings, hope for survival and peace.

I absolutely love the quality of writing, things dangled early on, come back, often with subtly and restraint that you could easily miss them.  When discussing the book with @muslimmommyblog, I felt like we both were finding threads we had possibly not considered and connections that added nuance and staying power to the plot.

So often, the more religious a character in literature is, the stricter they are presented, the less kind they are seen, but in this book it was the opposite, the loving couple were the imam and his defense attorney wife, the glue that radiated kindness to Sal, Noor, and so much of the town is a hijab wearing strong woman.  So many tropes and stereotypes were uprooted, tossed aside, and reimagined.  There is compassion for a Muslim alcoholic, a liquor store being the employment of a Muslim, consequences for dealing drugs, yet nothing “haram” is really ever glorified, it is gritty and repulsive, but there is no judgement, there is only understanding and sadness.  Palpable despair that rattles your bones and makes you wish the world was different.

I don’t want to spoil the book, I was able to read it largely not knowing what the plot would delve in to. In many ways the trigger warning at the beginning was the only thing that braced me for what was to come. The level of religion and how it was woven is through the gentleness of some of the characters and hatred of others, was expertly done.  There are not ayats in the Quran quoted or speeches given, there is love, and faith and hope that manifest as duas and longing and finding ways to be Muslim in action, not just in appearance. When the characters start to make-out their Islamic conscious is drawn in, when they grapple with their hope and future- trust in something bigger is considered. It is not a Muslim book, not even an Islam centered book, perhaps Muslamic, but really about characters who are Muslim and dealing with the cards they have been dealt.

FLAGS:

Alcohol use, drug use, relationships, kissing, touching, longing, language, physical assault, physical violence, domestic violence, hate, racism, stereotyping, Islamophobia, there are mentions of a lesbian relationship and a bi relationship, a child out of wedlock, death, addiction, sexual assault, repressed trauma, bullying, teasing, lying, music,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have a 15 year old daughter, and I probably will have her read the book this summer, I think there is a lot to discuss and I think in the right hands the book could be used for a high school book club.

Moonlight Hope: A Muslim American Coming of Age Story by Nora Salam

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Moonlight Hope: A Muslim American Coming of Age Story by Nora Salam

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This 354 page New Adult read is truly Islamic fiction, and as long as you know what you are getting in to, you probably will thoroughly enjoy it.  It is Islamic centered, it is preachy, it is idyllic, it counters many stereotypes about Muslims and various cultures, while simultaneously falling into other tropes that define the genre, it has mature framing that is not suitable for younger readers, but doesn’t detail anything that is super “haram.”  If you are looking for a potentially halal romance between YA and Adult ages with Islamic messaging this book is a solid choice.  If however, you will be annoyed by any of the aforementioned labels, this book will not hold your attention or beg to be finished.  It reminds me a lot of Umm Zakiyyah’s If I Should Speak and A Voice books where the story has its own twists and character arcs but it spends a lot of time preaching and setting itself up to tout an Islamic perspective, or concept as well.  I wanted to read two books in the “New Adult” category and see if I could spread my reviews to include them, and with this being the second,  I think I should resist the temptation, and stick to what my library background familiarized me with.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating voices of Intisar and Majed, two individuals in New York City, at different places in their life, but finding that when they hit rock bottom, Islam is the answer.

Intisar is graduating nursing school when the story opens and has only one goal in mind, get married.  She has strict Sudanese parents and has put all of her dreams on finding freedom in the perfect spouse.  She meets a guy at a friend’s house and they secretly date, kiss, and hold hands.  When he ghosts her, she is devastated and reluctantly finds herself agreeing to marry a much older man of her parent’s choosing.  Loosing herself in the idea of marriage, she finds herself heartbroken, ostracized and falling apart.  She starts to put herself back together slowly by finding Islam, her confidence, and some much needed perspective.

Majed has a famous family: his mother a model, his father and siblings singers, and he manages their careers.  After passing out from drugs and alcohol more than once he really starts to examine his life and the road he is on.  He sneaks away to rehab and in the process stumbles on to Islam.  He is Egyptian, but the family is not religious at all, and infact stop talking to him when he converts.  The trials of being a Muslim in New York with no family are not easy, but he feels it is worth it and his journey to Hajj and through loss brings him closer to Allah (swt).

The two stories are parallel and collide slightly in the periphery, but the book ends with them finally coming together and the ever dreaded words of “to be continued,” leaving the reader hanging.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like that the story shows struggles when one comes (back) to Islam, it isn’t always a walk in the park, it has challenges and stresses.  The book starts each chapter with a verse from the Quran and is very open about what it is.  So, while at times, the preachiness did get to me, it was very clear what type of book it was from the beginning and I kept reading.

Some of the side characters I felt needed to be fleshed out a bit.  I didn’t understand many of the random friends, how they affected the main character often seemed off, or completely underdeveloped in what was revealed about them: particularly Izzedine, Parita, the girl that married Mansour, the uncle at the Masjid that thought Majed was a spy, etc..  I also really struggled with the presentation of Uncle Munir and his calling Majed, baby, and how he just happened to bump in to him outside the bar, and the kisses.  I’m guessing it was meant to show him as over the top affectionate, but it just read as odd.

I like that the book addresses hypocrisy, mental health, and expectations.  It doesn’t paint all Muslims as good or bad, nor society at large.  The book reads as a journey, and many characters are given a chance to correct their errors and be seen in a new light.

The majority of the book is written well, but right away the book gave me pause as Intisar and her friends chat all through the Jummah khutbah, I get that it is trying to show her disregard for intentional practice of her faith and her “boy crazy/marriage” obsession, but you cannot speak during the khutbah, it isn’t just dirty looks, you truly cannot talk for it to count, and it isn’t even remarked upon, and it made me skeptical of the book for a while.  There is a word missing from a sentence on page 161 and at one point a brother in the prayer hall aims a shoe to throw.  But you wouldn’t be wearing shoes in the room where you pray, and the mosque has hallways and a glassed off section for women, so this seemed like an obvious oversight that should be fixed.

FLAGS:

Drugs, alcohol, lying, overdose, sneaking out, kissing, hooking up, physical affection, violence, temptation, sexual predatory behavior, it is an adult book, so I’m not going to continue listing everything. Nothing haram is overtly detailed or glorified. Ages 17 and up, could handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Too mature for my book club crew, but I wouldn’t mind it on a shelf in the school library.

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

Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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This author won me over with More Than Just a Pretty Face, and his ability to celebrate and show flaws within our desi cultures while simultaneously presenting relatable Islamic experiences in a romantic comedy.   I have been yet to determine if this YA/Teen 328 page book follows in those footsteps, or cuts a little too critically and close on the Islamic presentation.  Undoubtedly the story is hard to put down, culture and Islam are present, but I don’t know what the lingering taste of Islam would be for a non-Muslim reading the book.  Would they see the faith separate from those that practice or actively don’t practice, would Muslim readers?  Literature is quickly showing how Muslims are not a monolith, but I worry that that nuance might be lost in this particular book, and the takeaway would be far more stereotype affirming, than critically thought provoking.  The packaging of the story is memorable characters and quality writing, even if the plot and purpose is a little shaky at times.  I admit for as much as I crave discussions on representation and twists and defined characters, this book has me at a bit of a loss on how to feel about the book overall.  I think it is possibly the first time I just haven’t seen myself and my experiences mirrored at all in a book with this much Islamic content. As a reviewer it makes me feel useless, but as an American born Muslim, I kind of love the uneasiness and challenge that my head is trying to wrap itself around.  The references, the language, lust, plentiful innuendos and physical abuse make the book a solid high school and up read.

SYNOPSIS:
Arsalan lives with his 100 year old Nana in Sacremento.  His mother has passed away, and his father is out of the picture in Arizona as he attempts sobriety.  Homeschooled and isolated from other kids, technology, and the world around him, he suddenly finds himself in a public high school trying to make his way.  Afraid that when his Nana passes he is going to be all alone in the world, he reaches out to the stepdaughter, Beenish, of the community match maker to see if she can help him with an arranged marriage.  She agrees on one condition, he dances with her at an upcoming competition.  He agrees, but first a makeover is required and before you know it a romance is blooming.  Awkward and formal and ever the gentleman, Arsalan uncovers that there is no competition, the dancing is required to break up Beenish’s sister’s wedding.  The girls’ biological mother was a dancer and the shame it brought on them all as it destroyed her career, her marriage, and the family has made her daughters the black sheep of the family and community.  The stepmom wants to get them out of the house as soon as possible and thus dancing of any kind is forbidden at Qirat’s upcoming nuptials.  Beenish despises the groom and hopes her dancing will not only remind the family that the mom has been banned from attending the wedding, but also hopefully prevent the wedding from taking place.  As the story moves forward with learning to dance, relationships must be reconciled, friendships developed, and growing pains felt, with some sass from Nana at every turn, more than one character will have to learn to make hard decisions and accept the outcomes that result.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Right from the start Arsalan makes it known that he is not a practicing Muslim, that he is “nominally one.”  His Nana has raised him to be a skeptic, his abusive father would beat him when feeling religious and guilty for his alcohol consumption, and his deceased mother was more spiritual than disciplined.  So, for the next few chapters, whenever Islam was mentioned I would snap a picture.  Twenty pages later and dozens of pictures of text made me stop and realize that this coming of age book is not a story about Islam, but rather the characters are dealing with their own identities and Islam just happens to be present, for all of them.  Arsalan remarks how our roots shape us as he quotes hadith, ok paraphrases them, and discusses sahaba, eventually having to accept that knowledge and wisdom and truth must be recognized, even when it comes from a source that he doesn’t favor.  Similarly, the most presenting tough guy, music and sports and appearance obsessed character is always hanging around the mosque, at the MSA, and encouraging Arsalan to come and pray.  The love interest calls out Muslims for their fake religiosity saying that her stepmom wears it as a fancy dress, she owns it, but takes it off when she wants.  Her father came to Islam late, and is relatively strict and conservative as a result, she is Muslim, but more culturally as she doesn’t seem to have sorted it out herself.  The characters dance, which involves touching and immodest clothing, at the end they do kiss.  There is language which is noted as being course and vulgar, and there really is no “model Muslim” or any characters that want to be.  So, similarly there are no haram police commenting when the characters, as individuals seemingly step out of line.  The sister character is quote unquote religious, but I don’t know if she covers, she doesn’t seem to be representative of anyone other than herself and she has her own cultural family issues, so her Islam is just stated, but not explored.  Some only eat halal, that gets included but not really opined on.   It really is the first time I feel like I’ve read so many Muslim characters in one place that represent only themselves, which is very much real life, but also a shift in Muslim rep in literature.

The story has some foundational issues which made me laugh when reading the author’s note that says he, “writes in the dark.”  Meaning he doesn’t know where he is going until he gets there.  I think it might show in this book more than he realizes. Aiza Aunty is shamed as scandalous because of her dancing in Lollywood (Pakistan’s version of Bollywood, which is India’s version of Hollywood) films.  She apparently got her sari a bit too wet in a waterfall scene, and it was too much shame to rebound from.  So why did that ruin her life? I mean any production has rehearsals, and blocking, and post editing, and retakes, why does one scene seem to fall squarely on her shoulders, every single decision maker along the way passed it through.  I’m not buying it.  I also don’t buy the whole wedding is hanging on a single thread of dancing, it tries really hard to make it make sense, and by the end the reader really is just prepared to go along with it, but holding auditions, not planning to tell Qirat, really is expecting the reader to suspend reality just a tad more than the genre should be asking one to do.

The book is smart and it expects the reader to be smart.  The references the character’s personas and need to be seen and loved is not always spelled out, it has to be pieced together and I love it.  The Thanksgiving scene, the misfit members of each family coming together and bonding with Nana and Arasalan is sweet, but actually really sad, and I love that it doesn’t say it, it shows it.

Of all the characters I love Diamond the most, I just wish we knew more about what motivates him.  He reads too nice and too puppy doggish and I wish we got just a bit more to see why he is the way he is.  Truly all the characters are memorable, and I’m pretty sure they will stay with me for a while.

FLAGS:

There is kissing, romance, crude language, lots of sexual innuendos, physical violence, physical abuse, child abuse, death, shaming, manipulation, alcohol addiction, religious zealousness, dancing, intimate dancing, body objectification, music, singing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could never teach this book, but please, please, please, read it and help me to understand how I feel about it.

I Lost Something Very Special by Husna Rahman illustrated by Anita Bagdi

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I Lost Something Very Special by Husna Rahman illustrated by Anita Bagdi

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This beautifully illustrated 34 page story about the loss of a beloved grandfather is universal and heartfelt.  It is not an Islamic fiction book as there is no mention of the duniya or akhira or accepting Allah’s decree, the family however, is visibly Muslim and it shows women in hijab and the little girl narrator praying salat with her now deceased grandfather.  Similarly, there are no cultural words or references in the text, but the illustrations show Bangladeshi culture, writing, and warmth.  The author is a psychotherapist and counselor, and all readers, young children and up, will benefit from the tenderness and emotion-filled paperback book.

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A young girl starts the book stating that she has lost something.  She recalls other things she has lost, a scarf, a toy, her voice, a tooth, and how after a while the item was found or it came back and she was able to carry on.  Today, however, is not the same, she has lost her grandfather, and he isn’t coming back, and she doesn’t know if she can carry on.

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She goes to his house, and he isn’t there, and the heartbreak is palpable.  She knows in time she will forget the lost scarf and lost voice, but she doesn’t want to ever forget her grandfather.  She finds some pictures and recalls him teaching her to ride her bike, them praying together, and planting a garden, his stories, his smell, his laugh, his hugs.

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As she assembles the pictures in a scrapbook, she is filled with memories and warmth and his wisdom.  The book ends with her seemingly coming to accept her new reality and then the book asking the reader if they have felt loss, what memories they carry, and what they miss the most about those that are gone.

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The sparse text and amazingly expressive illustrations make the book a beautiful addition to help children cope with their own feelings, and to learn empathy for others going through their own trials of loss.

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House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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This 278 page magical realism YA book featuring a Muslim family grabs your attention and heart in the prologue, unfortunately it quickly releases it, and until you get over a third of the way in to the story, it is a struggle to read.  Once you accept that half of the book, the storyline set in the present, is going to be terrible, you enjoy the historical narrative and appreciate that the short book with a quick pace spends more time in the subcontinent during partition, than it does with the painfully underdeveloped characters trying to make sense of past secrets and their present day manifestations.  The book doesn’t have any major flags in terms of religious representation, it is just ritual acts of praying and reading Quran, nothing detailed or explored, and relationship-wise there is nothing high school readers can’t handle (spoilers and more details can be read in the FLAGS section).  Despite being a first time author, she works as an editor, so one would really expect the climax to hit harder with clearer writing, the characters to be developed, the details written to serve a purpose, and the protagonist teen’s voice not to read overwhelmingly at the beginning as a five year old.  The overall story concept and historical fiction component are exciting, the development of the characters just really failed an otherwise engaging read. 

SYNOPSIS:

Maera’s brother Asad goes missing in 2011 from their grandfather’s home in Pakistan while they are visiting.  They search and cannot locate him or a body, the loss devastates Maera’s family.  Ten years later, her grandfather passes away, and the next morning a greenhouse appears in their backyard in America.  Not just any greenhouse, her grandfather’s greenhouse from Pakistan.  Maera thinks she is going crazy, her mother doesn’t acknowledge the structure, she doesn’t acknowledge much, not about the reality in front of them, not the night Asad disappeared, or the needs of her daughter. Maera’s aunt (mom’s twin) and cousin come from Pakistan to mourn the loss of the grandfather together, he passed in Pakistan, not sure why Maera and her mom didn’t go there, but I digress.  Cousins Jamal, aka Jimmy, and Maera are the only two that seems determined to figure it all out.  Their grandfather’s journal turns up and with Maera’s friend Sara and Rob, the neighbor and former best friend of Asad, the four of them set out to understand what is going on in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse seems to be alive, and entering it dependent on the whims of something within, a churail,  a shape shifting creature of myth that is more than a witch, a succubus that targets men.  A woman who died violently and was wronged by men, whose feet are turned backward, and who is neither alive or dead.  As the four work through the journal, venture in to the greenhouse, and confront those within, secrets will be unearthed, exposed, and finally dealt with.

The historical interwoven story is that of the grandfather during colonial British rule and partition.  As a young boy Haroon is searching for his father fighting in Burma and the adventures he has along the way. Shah Jehan’s father takes Haroon in at one point, and the girl with an emperor’s name sneaks him out to watch the village deal with the churail who are killing the men in their village.  The incident scars Haroon, but his affection for Shah Jehan and the role she will continue to have in his life is established. The understanding that the subcontinent is being carved up and starved by the colonizers in the name of freedom is made clear in the characters that Haroon encounters and the quickly maturing boy grows in to a young man as he starts to understand the world around him and the larger powers at play.  When the migration and violence between Hindus getting to India and Muslims going to Pakistan occurs, the pieces in the past and present come together to reveal the terrors that the greenhouse houses. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved the commentary both in the text, and explicitly detailed in the afterward about how culturally the past is handled.  How little generations discuss what they have endured and been through.  I have been asked by my father-in-law a few times to try and coax my mother-in-law to detail her journey with their oldest son from India to Pakistan.  She has apparently never clearly told what happened, what she saw, and what they experienced.  She waves it off now, but her own children didn’t even know there was more to the story, and as my inlaws approach their 90s I have little hope of them recalling or sharing their stories.  Recently my son needed to hear some first person accounts of war, so he contacted my American grandfather to learn about his time in the Korean War, much of it I knew, Americans, generally speaking, talk about this type of experience in passing.  My son, also wanted to compare his story to someone who lived as a civilian through a war, and asked my mother-in-law, his Dadi, about her experience living through the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, not that long ago, and we all sat spellbound as she recalled the sirens and how they kept the children fed and calm and whatnot.  They were stories no one had thought to ask it seemed.  She has seven children and almost thirty grandchildren.  This book struck such a chord with me, I need to actively seek out these stories before it is too late.   Chances are no one else in the family will. Not speaking the language fluently has cost me my chance to learn my own father’s family’s stories and I need to find a way to gather my husband’s family’s stories before it is too late. I love that in the book, The Past is capitalized as if it is a named living person shaping the lives of so many.  It is, and these stories are wonderful reminders and motivators to ask the elders to share their memories.

The present day story thread, however, is chalked full of holes, one dimensional characters, and pointless tangents.  Sara and Maera read like they are early elementary aged.  They are so terribly voiced in the beginning, I have no idea, how an editor author and mainstream publisher did not require correction.  The dialogue, the action, the role of the parents, it is terrible.  Speaking of terrible, the mother and aunt are absolutely flat and useless.  They mope, sleep and sit in the corner.  I don’t understand why you wouldn’t develop them to link the past story to the present one.  I’m not being picky here, it is that bad.  I also wanted to know why the dad left.  Seems like it would flesh out the mom a bit, justify her approach to life.  Sara and Rob are obviously brought in to serve as vessels for the action, and for Maera and possibly Jimmy to play off of.  But their backstories are so pathetic.  How do you not know or see your neighbor for ten years.  Ok, I get that he was Asad’s best friend and your family in their grief and denial pushed him away, but he never checked the mail or took out the trash, or was seen? And Sara offers absolutely nothing to the story other than to be part of the forced crush/romance line pairing off her and Jimmy and Rob and Maera.  Alhumdulillah, it stays tame with the angsty longing and hand holding.  

Random details that serve no purpose reach a pinnacle with the paragraph long time spent on Maera wearing Rob’s tank top.   I have no idea why we should care that she is wearing a tank top.  Sure as a Muslim reviewer it furthered the notion to me, that she is probably more culturally religious, and yes I know Muslim’s dress to different degrees of modesty, but I really couldn’t find any other reason for the emphasis on the black tank top. Overall, all the friendships in the story seem so off: Rob and Asad, and Sara and Maera.  They should be easy plot points, but they don’t connect, or read believable.  

Plot wise: if you had a building magically appear in your back yard along with a journal, would you not read that journal as fast as possible? Sure you would lose sleep and maybe skip a meal or two, but hello, a building just appeared in your back yard that is moving and growing, your grandfather died and your brother’s body was never found: stop what you are doing and read the journal.  It mentions that when Asad went missing there were a lot of other kids, cousins at the house, so where are they now? Why was there no mention of them, and only Jimmy seems to have a vested interest in the grandfather passing, and the growing need to remember Asad.  I did not understand the sacrifice and hair connection and how that was what Maera understand the Churail to be asking for.  I did not understand the end of chapter entitled “The Separation,” it says they entered together, so…. ya?Off and on in the greenhouse there are multiple churail, this seems inconsistent with what we learn from the one churail about leaving.  The whole climax needs a Cliff’s Notes synopsis.  I honestly have no idea what happened.  The churail was scared of the beast, but they all went off together, affectionately? I’m trying not spoil anything here.  Why was the churail so different at the beginning compared to the end, why did she get a growth arc, when the other characters didn’t? Shouldn’t there have been some cathartic reprieve verbalized between the mom and SPOILER (sorry I tried) Asad? I felt deprived.  

There were a few grammar errors, but because I read an ARC, I’m hoping they have been corrected

FLAGS:

There is a little bit of language (F word at least once).  Children are conceived, it isn’t explicit, but the fact that it happened is critical to the story.  There are crushes, angsty/longing, hand holding, hugging.  There is sexual assault implied as a major plot point, but not detailed.  There is death, and killing, often gruesome, some real, (hits harder), some far fetched.  The book is YA and  ok for high school readers and up in my opinion.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would be interested in seeing if some of the muddled passages are cleaned up in the published physical copy, the book’s characters are weak, but the historical fiction component is a story that needs to be shared more and more as we, collectively, seek to understand the past, the impact of colonization, and the emergence of telling our OWN voice stories.  For all the flaws, I haven’t completely written off the book, I’m hopeful that even if this one doesn’t make the cut for a book club, that inshaAllah the author will keep writing and filling in the blanks.

We Will Meet Again in Jannah: What a Great Day that will be! An Activity book for Bereaved Muslim Siblings by Zamir Hussain illustrated by Emily McCann

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We Will Meet Again in Jannah: What a Great Day that will be! An Activity book for Bereaved Muslim Siblings by Zamir Hussain illustrated by Emily McCann

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I don’t review workbooks, or a lot of non fiction books, but by far the most thematic requests I get asked about, are children’s books about bereavement.  The loss of a friend or loved one is just not a topic that you see covered very often, if at all.  Sure there are books about jannah, but they are more silly and framed as a reward, not about the loss felt that would precede paradise.  This 32 page paperback activity book is part reassurance, part encouragement, part discussion starter, and part remembrance all within a faith framework.  Much of the book is not sibling specific, perhaps a few tweaks and you could have a grandparent version, a parent version, an aunt or uncle version, etc.,  even as a parent you may consider adjusting the book as you share it if you are unable to find a specific book for your child’s needs.

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The book starts with the author talking to the reader and setting the tone about what has occurred and what is to follow in the book.  It then asks the reader to write or share who they are, who passed, and something special they remember about them.  It discusses why people die and then starts the two page spreads that address a theme and presents an activity to help you feel better, or to remember or celebrate the one who has died.  Topics include: You’re never too big to cry, It’s not your fault, Talking and sharing the pain, Some things will change other’s will stay the same, etc..  Some of the activities are wonderful and can be done in any order, at any time, and others, you may want to adjust.  The idea of releasing a balloon, for example, with your worries in it, is symbolically effective, but not so great for the environment.  The end of the book has additional resources on how to use the book, things to do with the child, further support,  additional resources, and Islamic guidance.

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I love that Islamic foundations and vocabulary are not just used, but explained in a very age appropriate, non condescending manner, through out.  I love that it is clear that you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, that it is not the child’s job or responsibility to make the adults feel better, that nothing is anyone’s fault, and that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

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I wish the book was larger in size and perhaps hardback so that the activities that require writing would have more space and ease in completing.  The text for the activities is also very tiny.  I also wish that the author’s qualifications for such advices was included.  I Googled the author to find out:  “Zamir Hussain is a Muslim Chaplain at Birmingham Children’s Hospital and has pioneered resources in Islamic health care. She has published several books for bereaved Muslim parents and siblings. She has also developed the first UK blended learning resource, including care plans and pathways for Islamic daily, palliative, end of life and bereavement care for paediatric staff. Zamir has worked as a Muslim Chaplain for both the Heart of England NHS Trust and Birmingham Children’s hospital for over five years, where she has also run training courses for the staff as well as delivering training and talks on care for Muslim patients to organisations around the country.”

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We need more books about coping, talking, dealing, understanding death for our children, inshaAllah this is a start, alhumdulillah.

Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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Ruby in the Sky by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

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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.   

SYNOPSIS:

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.

FLAGS:

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.

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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