Tag Archives: desert

Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah by Catherine Hapka illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

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Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah by Catherine Hapka illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

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I love that a reader talked to her mom about this book, and then they brought it to my attention. Published in 2011 it is book six in a popular middle grade series told from the horse’s perspective where each book features a different culture from around the world and is set in different time periods. This book is told from an Arabian horse’s perspective in the 9th century and details her growing up an orphan, trying to understand the Bedouin humans around her, and establishing herself as a war mare.  Allah swt is mentioned quite often, as is Arab hospitality, and some guests at one point are briefly mentioned as they are on their way to Hajj.  My problem with the story is the portrayal of the raids.  I don’t know enough about Bedouin culture in the 9th century to opine on the accuracy of the raiding that would occur between tribes, but when juxtaposed with the humble God fearing, grateful religious people, blatantly stealing from the neighbors, it is hard to cheer for Yatimah and her humans at being thieves.

SYNOPSIS:

The birth of Yatimah takes the life of her mother, the beloved war mare of Nasr.  Her loss puts distance between the Bedouin leader and the foal.  Nasr’s daughter Safiya, however, has a soft heart for Yatimah and the two form a close bond. As Yatimah is accepted to nurse from another mare and grows with the companionship of her colt, Tawil, the two young horses show the reader how when the grazing starts to disappear in the desert, they are fed dates, and when those start to deplete they move to more fertile lands.  Always on the move, they raid other camps to steal sheep, and camels, and horses as needed, and work to prevent other’s from stealing from them.  Since the death of Yatimah’s mom, Nasr has not found a proper war mare, and thus the training of Yatimah begins. The climax is a raid that will give Yatimah a chance to prove herself and win over the still distant Nasr.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the illustrations and the detail that often accompanies them.  I also really appreciate the appendix at the end that gives information about Arabian horses, Bedouins, and war mares.  I learned a lot about the specific strengths of Arabian horses, and why the Bedouins favored riding mares over stallions. 

I liked that many of the exhausting stereotypes were not present in this book in regards to women.  Safiya is a young girl at the beginning and then starts to wear hijab as she grows, but she is still free to come and go as she pleases it seems.  Her father respects her and shows affection and kindness to her throughout.  I just find the premise a little off that we readers, are hoping that Yatimah becomes the lead thieving horse.  It mentions that it doesn’t make sense to the horses, but to have that be the whole point of the story, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially when the story could have been developed in so many other ways to focus on something a little bit more positive.

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FLAGS:

Stealing, thieving, death, loss.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book would be fine on a classroom bookshelf, but I wouldn’t highlight it unless I was prepared to discuss with young readers the culture and why perhaps this was such a part of the lifestyle.  I would not want to perpetuate any stereotypes of Muslims, or provide a negative impression on readers that are drawn to these books because of their love of horses.  I learned a lot by reading the books, but I worry what a 8 to 10 year old would take away about a culture and religion after reading such a story, I fear the word barbaric may arise.

Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina Al-Hathloul illustrated by Rebecca Green

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Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers by Uma Mishra-Newbery and Lina Al-Hathloul illustrated by Rebecca Green

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This 40 page early elementary book based on the efforts of the real life woman, Loujain AlHathloul, and her work to change the laws regarding women driving in Saudi Arabia, had a lot of promise.  Unfortunately, the symbolism connecting flying and driving, just didn’t work for me.  No one can flap their arms and fly, so to demand gender equality for an unrealistic action, is a big stretch that ultimately stretches itself too thin.  There is nothing Islamic, except women wearing a hijab in a few illustrations, or even Saudi specific in the book.  It talks of the desert, but the country is unnamed.   Overall, I just had so many questions such as: if she was flying before sunrise- how was she not seen returning from the sunflower patch, can women then never leave an area, are there ways they can fly as passengers, are there other modes of transportation, at what age are children allowed to fly, and so many more, that they prevented me from being inspired by the story.

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The book starts with Loujain believing in her self and knowing that one day she will fly.  She dreams of a place of a million sunflowers, a picture her dad has given her inspires her to seek out bright colors, capture them on film, and hang them in her room.

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In the morning her father straps on his wings, and flies off.  Loujain is not allowed to fly because she is a girl.  Her family tells her that one day she will.  When she tells the kids at school, they laugh at her.  When she pushes her dad to teach her, her mother advocates that he should.

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Loujain and her father practice flying before the sun rises, and finally they make the long journey to see the sunflowers.  Her father takes a picture of Loujain, and it appears the next day in the newspaper.  Other girls are inspired and begin to demand the right to fly too.

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I love the mom in the book, and her encouraging of Loujain’s dad to teach her.  She asks him, “if you don’t support her, who will?” I don’t know why the mom isn’t wearing a hijab on the last page though.  It seems like there is a subtle message there about hijab being legally required as well.

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The book is a reach, and for me it didn’t connect or leave an impression.  The information about the prison sentence and push back to achieve the legal change was far more interesting and memorable, but only a few paragraphs long at the end.

Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

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Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

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This 127 page book has a lot of potential, but ultimately didn’t win me over.  It is one of those that needs a good editor to encourage the author to flesh out the characters, take advantage of a potentially cathartic resolution, and fill the gaping holes in the story.  Meant for ages 8-12 the tiny font, and tight spacing, make the book really dense and intimidating to look at and read.  The book, as written, should be well over 200 pages, if spaced appropriately for the target audience.  Once you accept the presentation and get in to the story, it isn’t an awful read, it just could have and should have been so much more.  I hope the author revisits it and polishes it up- the time travel, the science DNA component, and the death of the protagonist’s parents, offer a lot for Muslim and non Muslim readers to sink their teeth in and be swept away by, but ultimately, I don’t know that most readers will be motivated to finish the book, and those that do, won’t remember anything about it.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila’s dad has recently died, and with her mother having died years earlier, Laila is now 13 and an orphan living with her stepmom and baby sister.  Feeling resentful that her dad remarried and had a child that took time away from her in his final span of life, doesn’t make Laila a very kind person at home.  Her best friend Beth, even points out how cold she is to her family.  With school vacations approaching, Laila is headed for Umrah with her dad’s brother, her uncle, and his wife.  While making tawaf, Laila loses her aunt and uncle in the crowd and finds herself transported to 7th century Arabia.  She hears a baby crying and learns that the baby’s life is in danger.  To save her, she must get the baby, the baby’s mom and baby’s sister from Makkah to Yathrib.  The only way to do that is to join a caravan, and they can only join a caravan if they have a male escort.  So Laila chops off her hair, acts like a boy, and gets them in the caravan.  They meet bandits along the way, but nothing too scary, they arrive in Medina and right before they meet RasulAllah, Laila finds herself back in the present.  She is in a hospital, but the doctors do not know what is wrong with her so they release her.  She returns to the US, relays the story to Beth, and decides that at an upcoming field trip to study DNA, she is going to submit the baby’s hair that she still has for dating.  The results show it is from 1400 years ago and a family heirloom of her step moms reveals that the baby is a great great great great… grandmother of her’s.  Resolved to open her heart to her family, Laila is a changed person, alhumdulillah.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise, it is like Sophia’s Journal and When Wings Expand  thrown together and scrambled.  Laila is struggling with her faith and is trying to find it, while also finding a way to move forward after losing her father.  There are just a lot of things that aren’t answered, are contradictory, or don’t make sense.  It says she learned Arabic because her mother spoke it, her dad is desi, but really no hiccups speaking in 7th century Arabia other than forgetting the word for scissors?  She at one point said she was a cousin from the north, but while on the caravan mentioned that she had never travelled through the desert.  There really should have been more action with the thieves and the regrouping when the men came back.  Similarly, her gender reveal should have been a bigger deal than it was.  I was hoping there would be a mention of if her hair was long or short when she awoke in the hospital, I don’t think I missed it, but maybe, or maybe it wasn’t there.  Once back home, there really needed to be a reunion scene with Laila and her stepmom and half sister, I mean the whole point of the time travel was to save a baby. Really? Nothing? I was disappointed that it was glossed over and mentioned as a retelling to Beth and pushed aside.  The second climax is when the DNA testing is being questioned, but I didn’t get the need for the babysitter and everything to be rearranged for a two second conversation with the principal accusing Laila of theft, a phone call should have sufficed, plus when Laila and Beth mention it to the scientist, it seems everyone was questioned, but Beth wasn’t, something wasn’t consistent there either.  Overall, the book needed more action for a book that involves time travel and more emotional attachment and character connection for a book that involves a newly orphaned young teen girl.

I like the conveying of Islamic facts and information and history in a fairly smooth way.  At the beginning, Umrah being explained was a little text bookish, but it smoothed out as the book progressed.  I love the little flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, I wish there would have been some information about the remarriage of her father and her emotions on the matter at that time.  It is one thing to be grieving, but really she is a brat to her step mom, and if the uncle and aunt live right there, not sure where they live, someone should really be working on getting them all some family therapy, not a quality situation for anyone.

FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use the book as a book club selection, nor would I think it would get read if on a classroom shelf.  I might use the premise of going back in time to meet Prophet Muhammad, as a writing prompt though.  Would be a good assignment with factual and Islamic references to get kids stretching their imagination to make it all come together and work.

 

Azad’s Camel by Erika Pal

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Azad’s Camel by Erika Pal

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This beautifully illustrated picture book takes the reader in to the world of camel racing, children jockeys, mistreatment by adults, children being sold by their families and running away, all in a span of 40 pages and on an AR 3.5 level.  Yeah, its a lot for a kid’s book, but it has a happy ending and it does draw attention to an atrocity not often discussed or thought about.

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Young Azad lives with his old uncle in a village outside the city.  He helps take care of the goat and fetches water for tea in the mornings,  in the afternoons he plays with his friends.  One day he is doing handstands on a soccer goal post when a rich Sheikh drives by and sees him.

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The Sheikh comes back and convinces the uncle to let him take the boy to be trained as a camel rider to one day be famous.  The uncle agrees saying he can’t afford to keep him.

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The Sheik takes Azad to the desert with other boys to live and be trained.  Azad learns that food is earned and chores are a must.  The races are dangerous and Azad doesn’t like them, but he is good and is forced to keep racing.

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One night the camel, Asfur, talks to Azad and the two plan to keep running past the finish line at their next race.  The pair are so fast that, they do just that, and no one can catch them.  They run through the city, and back to the desert.

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The other animals of the desert keep them warm when it gets cold and until a Beduin tribe discovers them and takes them in.  At last Azad and Asfur find a home.

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There is information about camel racing at the end including how robots are replacing child jockeys in some countries and how many young children are being returned to their families, school and a normal life.

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I like that the book takes on a real and sad occurrence, bringing camel racing and forced child labor in to light.  The story is truly written for younger elementary kids with short paragraphs on each page, large engaging illustrations, quick jumps in events and glossing over any truly graphic details.

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I do worry that stereotypes are reinforced with the use of calling the rich man who bought Azad a “Sheikh” and the Bedouins dancing at the end.  Culturally the book is a generic Middle Eastern country and doesn’t mention or emphasize religion at all with the exception of the women in the pictures being veiled.

I found the book at the library and think it has good information to discuss with your children, but I don’t know that I can see it being anyone’s favorite book, or a regular night time request.  While, yes, it does have a happy ending, you don’t really “feel” what Azad is going through, you are just glad he finds people that want him.