Tag Archives: diversity

Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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This is book two in the series, I couldn’t get the first book from the library, and I wasn’t willing to wait for the one that focuses on Muslim character, Zahra’s story to be published, it could be a few years.  At 224 pages this middle grades book is fairly formulaic with five diverse girls becoming friends, each book featuring one girl’s story with the others serving as supporting characters, and with the tie-in to Disney Princesses, I really didn’t expect much. Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the characters and their lessons and struggles, sigh.  The book is sweet, the characters like-able, and the author really doesn’t try and force all the characters into every scene.  The book focuses on Piper and the other girls add to her story where it helps, they don’t all have equal time and it doesn’t get confusing because of it.  You can even read the books out of order.  Zahra wears hijab and her Islam is mentioned in a journal entry where she discusses the five pillars, the importance of charity, and getting dirty looks.  There is nothing preachy, but none of the other character’s are defined by their faith and I truly don’t know if I’m bothered by the singling out of Islam being her identity or flattered by it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Five girls are grouped together at school in an advisory class to help prepare them for middle school: Milla, Piper, Ruby, Mariana, and Zahra.  Their advisor loves Disney Princesses and in their weekly journal entries has them write about their assigned Princesses as they explore their similarities and how they would tackle challenges, face fears, and the like.  The girls are diverse in family dynamics, race, religion, ability, etc.  Milla is African American with two moms and food allergies.  Zahra is good at art, Muslim, and likes to sew.  Ruby is a twin, her parents are divorced and she is great at sports.  Mariana is hispanic, and is an amazing swimmer.  Piper is Jewish, has dyslexia and loves to cook.  In the book she is struggling with school, while she excels in her food science creations.  She gets accepted to appear in a kids cooking show competition, but will need the help of her Daring Dreamer friends to prepare for the challenges about to be thrown at her during the competition, and to help her from falling behind in school.

Each girl has their journal entry presented in the book which helps to understand more about the different girls, as well as a little bit of introspection to the events happening in the larger story.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the characters are really supportive, and the lessons aren’t so on the nose.  Piper isn’t just told that she doesn’t have to win the competition to have value, you feel it long before she accepts it herself.  Her personality really comes through and it isn’t for attention or for sympathy, she helps a competitor, there is no giant round of applause or moral reflection, she just helps.  I love that even though the story is Piper’s and her dream, there are larger issues woven in and felt, not necessarily preached. Piper is the middle child and feels she has to prove herself, she remarks on how being pulled out of class in early elementary school to get help has made it hard for her to ask for academic help now, the role of confidence and how charity and giving back is important, even while her own family’s financial situation isn’t clear.  I like the role of Piper’s siblings, they are quirky, but loving, and they work through their annoyances to help each other.  It is heartwarming.

I have my own mixed feelings about Disney Princesses, as a child of the 80’s, the 90’s brought all the glory of Jasmine, and Ariel, and Belle, and Mulan, and my friends and I definitely identified with different characters.  I may or may not have tied my hijab up many a days and claimed that I was Mulan in high school, but somehow with my own daughter I didn’t really bring the Princesses in to her day-to-day existence, I don’t think she has even seen all the movies, we read books (we didn’t even have a tv when she was little), she’s 14 now.  It had become too commercialized, I worried about the messaging more.  This book reminded me of what my friends and I as older “kids” channeled the Disney Princesses to be.  It wasn’t all about pink and sparkles, it was battling the bad guy, hanging on to your dreams, and persevering when things were tough.  This book channels those thoughts, it isn’t in your face Disney, it is more muted, and I appreciate that.  It is a solid middle grade read and I think an enjoyable one at that.

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FLAGS:

In this particular installment, there are no crushes, no holidays, no music, one character has two moms, but in this book, I don’t know that a casual reader would pick up on it. It says “Moms” once, it might be a bigger deal in the story that focuses on Milla, but I haven’t read it to comment.  There is lying and Piper tries to justify it, but I think it is clear and has its own resolution.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It is much too young for a middle school book club, but I think because it is such an easy engaging read, that in a home, or classroom, the book would be appealing to 3rd graders and up.

The author’s website: https://www.erinsoderberg.com/daring-dreamers-club.html

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There was an Old Auntie who Swallowed a Samosa by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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There was an Old Auntie who Swallowed a Samosa by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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I feel like such a broken record of late (and in the future), of my reviews of books published by Ruqaya’s Bookshelf; the stories are WONDERFUL, but I really struggle with the titles.  I truly thought this was a cultural/religious version of the classic, I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.  But it isn’t.  It is an original clever, laugh-out-loud hysterical story for preschool to early elementary.  And one that parents and caregivers will not dread reading over and over again with the well done rhyme, expressive illustrations, a silly conclusion, religious framework, and universal appeal.  The book is on point, the title and cover illustration, sadly for me are not, and don’t, in my opinion, do the story justice.

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Auntie Sophie is making samosas with some peppers she grew herself.  Under the close company of her kitty, we learn how the Scotch bonnets were grown and cared for.  The doorbell rings and Auntie Eynara has arrived with her beautiful cake to take to the masjid for iftaar.  

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Auntie Sophie  hurries and fries her samosas and the ladies head up the hill to the only mosque in town.  Everyone breaks their fasts with a date, but Auntie Sophia dives in to her samosas.  When the imam’s mic crackles, she swallows the samosa whole and something is terribly wrong.  Her belly is on fire and jelly nor garlic knots nor mint lemonade not rice can cool it down.

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Just when she thinks she is ready to pray, it starts up again, and having eaten everyone’s dinner, Auntie Sophia is getting very tired. As she rolls out the door and down the hill to her house, she figures out what happened to her delicious samosa filling, and calls to have pizza and halal hot wings delivered to the mosque.  She also pledges to grow flowers next year instead!

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Kids will love the book as it is outrageous, while at the same time being so relatable.  The mosque, iftar, eating something spicy, the book is a favorite at our house for both the two and six year old and the horizontal 8.5 x11 orientation, keep eyes glued to the pages, while the rhyming lines move the story along.  I enjoy being able to talk about the peppers and different foods and smell of garlic with my kids after the 17th reading or so, and I love the diversity of the characters at the mosque. 

Mabrook! A World of Muslim Weddings by Na’ima B. Robert illustrated by Shirin Adl

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Mabrook! A World of Muslim Weddings by Na’ima B. Robert illustrated by Shirin Adl

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This 32 page lyrical 9 x 11 hardback book with playful illustrations is a celebration on the similarities of all Muslim weddings and the cultural distinctions that make them unique.  Four countries are highlighted: Pakistan, Morocco, Somalia, and Great Britain, and I really wish there were more.  The book is written on an early elementary level, but would make a great wedding present, or even a text to be shared at interfaith gatherings that focus on traditions and women’s rights.  It is joyous and informative complete with a glossary and info blurb at the end.

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The book starts out with verse 30:21, Chapter ar-Rum in the Holy Qur’an and then jumps in to jubilations of mabrook, congratulations.  It establishes what countries will be explored and that Muslims get married sharing religious rites, but different celebrations.

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In Pakistan there’s a henna party and the groom rides in on a horse.  The brides are adorned with bangles of gold and guests enjoy biriyani and rasmalai.

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In Morocco the entire neighborhood helps prepare couscous and roasted lamb with olives and pickled lemons.  At the waleemah the bride is carried in on a chair, and changes outfits seven times.

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In Somalia, buraanbur is danced and blessings are sung to the mother of the bride.

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In England the ginger bearded imam marries the groom to his hijab wearing bride in white.  There are people of all faiths and backgrounds there to celebrate and wish them well.

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But before all of that, there are meetings with families, prayers, important conversations, agreement to the marriage contract, the woman is given a mahr and guidance is sought.

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The Muslims: Book 1: The Test by Ahmad Philips

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The Muslims: Book 1: The Test by Ahmad Philips

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This is the first anime comic book in an eight book series aimed at early elementary readers.  Often books have lessons, this however, simply presents as an illustrated moral.  There is a situation that contains the lesson that one should always try their best for the sake of Allah swt and that is about it.  The knowledge isn’t tested a few additional times or in different situations, it is just 22 pages to illustrate the concept of doing things for the right reason, in this case studying after a failed test.  There isn’t anything wrong with the bright colorful book, the brother sister duo read authentic as they try and recall Islamic teachings, and get each other in trouble by accident, the diverse family is supportive and understanding, it just seems that it would apply to a specific lesson in a home or classroom and then sit on a shelf unasked for and not very memorable.

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The book starts with seven year old Hani trying his best on a multiple choice test that he didn’t study for.  He battles the personified Quiz Monster to no avail and on the way home from school confesses all to his little sister, Huda.  She reassures him that Allah swt doesn’t give us more than we can handle and agrees to not tell their parents.  Hani plans to tell them himself, inshaAllah.

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When they get home though, she slips, and spills the news to their mom.  Their dad comes home soon after and everyone knows.  The parents he imagines will turn into evil monsters themselves, but rather they laugh and remind him that he should have the intention of pleasing Allah swt in all things, so that he will assuredly never fail.  That if he makes that his goal, then he will inshaAllah find success.  Hani decides that he isn’t going to be careless in his studying and keeps focused.  He has a nightmare that he studies the wrong material, but alhumdulillah it is just a dream and he is ready, inshaAllah.

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The Islamic lesson and the situational allegory isn’t super clear, and I feel some discussion will need to take place to connect all the dots and convey the lesson in a way to be succinct and memorable.  Had he maybe made dua or intention before he studied, then the message would have been put in to practice, not just something the father talked to him about.  It is admirable that Hani was honest, that he didn’t try and hide is score, which I wish would have been praised.  Additionally, a little resolution between the siblings to show all was forgiven would have been nice.  The mom wears hijab even in the home, and there is a glossary at the end as well.

Salaam: Mindfulness for Muslims by Humera Malik illustrated by Najwa Awatiff

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Salaam: Mindfulness for Muslims by Humera Malik illustrated by Najwa Awatiff

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I had planned to wait until the physical book comes out on the 15th to offer up my thoughts, but the Kindle version has released and I want to help put it on everyone’s radar.  My own kids went back to school today and emotions and feelings are all over the place: excitement, nerves, anxiety, worry.  Changes in general cause heightened feelings, throw in Covid cases on the rise, puberty, friends, more open discussions about mental health, etc., and kids need tools to be successful.  Alhumdulillah, the Qur’an and Sunnah offer guidance, reassurance, and direction, and this book helps organize and present coping tools for ages seven to adult.  Thirteen emotions over 85 pages follow a pattern of a title page, a “Remember” page with an ayat from the Qur’an (except in one case it is a hadith), then an affirmation to be said that is either a verse, a dua, or dhikr, followed by an adorably illustrated spread of simple activities to do and try in a checklist manner.  Not only will young Muslims find reassurance and direction in the text provided, but inshaAllah, they will also be comforted knowing that what they are experiencing is very human and that Allah swt and Prophet Muhammad saw have provided insight and acknowledgement of such emotions.

The 13 emotions highlighted are: afraid, angry, disappointed, grief, jealous, lonely, overwhelmed, sad, shy, sorry, upset worried, grateful.  There is an author note to parents at the beginning that mentions that the book is meant to be read “cover to cover in peaceful times and to be dipped into to find specific advice” when needed, and I couldn’t agree more.  There is also a note for the readers normalizing big emotions and reassuring them that Allah swt does not want them to despair.

The diverse character illustrations are absolutely heartwarming and I hope that they will be made in to pictures or charts to be purchased so they can be hung.  They are really well done, and the visual mapping will help kids retain and put the tips in to practice.  I’m not sure what the sizing will be in the physical paper back book, but I hope it is large enough for them to be properly enjoyed.

 

 

Gokul Village and the Magic Fountain by Jeni Chapman and Bal Das illustrated by Charlene Chua

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Gokul Village and the Magic Fountain by Jeni Chapman and Bal Das illustrated by Charlene Chua

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This 32 page book for preschool to second graders, 3-7, is very formulaic and reads like an episode of Handy Manny, or Dora the Explorer, or Paw Patrol.  Each of the six characters has a skill and represents a different culture, when they work together magic happens and they learn something in the process.  There is a girl with hijab and even a mayor that has to be convinced and the kids are successful and save the day.  Sure there is nothing wrong with it, but it is a bit cheesy, on the nose, and largely forgettable.  The book claims that the six kids are going to learn and celebrate other New Years festivals, as they travel to New York, China, and India for Diwali, except, nothing is really learned or even experienced at any of the festivals or the one that they are hosting in their own village.  The book is the first in a series, and I don’t plan to purchase the next one to see if it improves on showing, rather than telling, but if I could find it in a library, I would definitely read it and enjoy the bright illustrations of diverse kids.

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The book starts off showing a sad broken fountain that isn’t loved or used except by six kids every day who gather there to play.  Zoya to paint, Christopher to build, Riya to play her flute, Dalai to ride his bicycle, Noelle to fly her drone, and Jacob to share the treats he baked.  They like to pretend that the waters of the fountain are connected to all the water around the world and that they can go on adventures.

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When the kids learn that the New Year’s party is canceled because the fountain can’t be repaired in time the kids decide to take action.  Time-out, I know, I usually give the entire summary then highlight the holes, but the book claims no one uses the fountain, now it is in the city center and needs repairs for a party, it seemed that it was old and crumbling, but last year it was fine? And if the kids could have always fixed it, why didn’t they? Any way Riya assigns everyone jobs to fix the fountain, AND THEN they go get the mayor and let her know they are going to fix it and she agrees saying if they can get it done in time the New Year’s Celebration wouldn’t be canceled.  The order seems off to me, they start fixing it, then work it out with the mayor and then have it all fixed in two days and the mayor clears it.  The illustrations show it pretty much fixed when the mayor arrives the first time, not sure what took two more days, and how it was ok for kids to fix a fountain prior to getting permission.

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With the festival back on, the fountain looks happy and the kids suddenly have enhanced skills: notes from the flute turn in to birds, Zoya can paint in the air, Dailai’s bracelet is glowing, tools are growing and multiplying, and the drone, iDea, speaks.  She tells the children to read the inscription on the heart of the fountain.  Somehow the kids know to each touch a glowing orb and sing a song verse together.  It reminded me of Dragon Tales.

The fountain whisks the kids to New York where they see a “jostling, jolly,” crowd celebrating.  Then they are off to watch “millions of people clap and sway together, hoping for happiness and good fortune for all,” at a Chinese celebration.  That is literally all it says, it doesn’t say that Chinese New Year would be at a different time because of the lunar calendar or anything, and then they are off to celebrate Diwali, in India, which also wouldn’t be at the same time as western New Years, and all they learn about it is that it is a celebration of light over darkness.  I’d guess readers wouldn’t even realize that it often coincides with the Hindu lunar calendar’s new year celebrations.

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The kids come back, name the fountain the Friendship Fountain, use some of the decorations they saw to decorate for their own new year’s party, and then they clean up after the party.  There is no showing how their village celebrated, there are no other villagers attending or helping or participating, it just says they agreed it was “the best party ever.”

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Perhaps  I am cynical because the book is $17, but even if the book was free, it really is lacking some depth.  If you are going to highlight some cultures, then highlight some cultures, don’t just name drop and move on. I love that the characters are diverse, but I hope in future book, their own cultures and beliefs are shared not just visually represented.  The formula works for little readers, but if even a talking hammer and screw driver in Handy Manny can have their own personalities, sadly these six kids missed a chance to show themselves and foster inclusive representation and teamwork in a celebratory manner.

https://www.gokulworld.com

The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad

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At times this 352 mature YA book was really hard to read for a variety of reasons: the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing of the story, and the numerous characters and inconsistencies.  At other times, the book was descriptive, and ethereal and hard to put down.  It took me over a month to finish the book because it really is all over the place and a lot of internal force and motivation was required to get through it, yet for all its flaws, I find my thoughts drifting back to it often.  The book contains a lot of violence against women, as that is the thread that brings this feminist group together.  There are hetero, lgbtq+, trans, and nonbinary individuals and relationships in the book, but they are not explicit, the rape, assault, suicide, prostitution, child trafficking and murder are more detailed.  The book takes place all over the world, and often mentions the athan being called or a mosque being passed.  Many characters have “Islamic” names, but there is no religion specifically practiced in this hijabi authored women powered tale.

SYNOPSIS:

The premise of the book is simple and straightforward.  A girl, the daughter of a prostitute, is betrayed by her mother when she is sent to a man.  As she runs through the city to escape, she crosses paths with a young boy who tosses her a box that contains stars.  A star embeds itself in her palm and allows her to enter a place called the “Between.”  The Between is a magical corridor made of magic that contains doors that lead to locations all over the world.  Once she enters she stops aging and is now made of magic.  She has the power to scream which can destroy other middle worlders and she can go invisible when around normal humans.  She travels the world finding other girls betrayed by those who had been entrusted to protect them, and offers them a star and a place in the Wild Ones.  This has been going on for centuries.  When the boy with the star eyes is in danger, he is reunited with the girl and her gang, and they pledge to protect him.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The concept of the book is pretty good, but the plot for more than half of the book it seems focuses on the girls constantly arriving in a new location, exchanging diamonds for local currency, finding food, and getting settled in, before doing it all over again.  It is repetitive and pointless.  Sure it is nice to read about exotic locations and savor local foods, but these girls live forever essentially and we learn so little about them or what it is they do.  Toward the middle of the book you start to see them helping other girls, but this should have been made clear much earlier on, I’m sure many people stopped reading before they saw how part of each girls’ healing involved helping others.  It is not developed or shown, which I think other than the two encounters detailed would have created some connection between the characters and the reader.

The cause of most of the confusion is that there are 11 Wild Ones, and you never really get to know any of them, the point of view switches between Paheli, and unknown speaker, and it has pages of prose from other Wild Ones that are neither explanatory of their life before or in relation to what they are currently experiencing. The fourth wall is broken periodically, but inconsistently.  So often, I just had no idea what was going on.

At times the characters speak like they are the teens that they are when they entered the Between, really noticeably and painfully, but they are decades old at the youngest, and centuries old for some of them.  Also, Taraana is presented as a young small boy that needs coddling a lot, although he too is centuries old, but then as the girls start protecting him, he suddenly is this incredibly handsome man in love with Paheli.  I get that their physical ages are suspended, so a relationship really might be possible and not creepy, but Taraana seemed to change, and it wasn’t explained.

The world building overall is weak, which is a shame, because it isn’t disjointed from the real world, it is just a slight addition to what the reader already knows.  If the Between is just hallways how is there a library? Can you live in the Between? Can all middle worlders access it? If so why aren’t the corridors crowded?

The pain of the girls, their rage, their ability to deal with their traumas in their own way and time, is very empowering.  I wish the sisterhood was more mutual than blindly following Paheli, like lost little children.  These girls/women can decide what to partake it, and leave the group if they want, so they are strong and capable, they just don’t seem to get to show it as they bounce around from place to place to place eating and doing what they are told.

The book almost seems to have been written in sections and then dropped in to place.  Much of the character information comes too late to make the story resonate.  Sure part of it is intentional to clarify and create “aha” moments, but it creates really boring stagnant chapters, when these girls should be fierce and powerful, not lounging and mundane.

There were a few spelling errors and grammar gaps, but I read an advanced readers copy, so I’m hopeful they will be resolved.

FLAGS:

Prostitution, rape, assault, suicide, death, murder, child trafficking, torture, drowning, infanticide, girl/boy kissing, girl/boy and girl/girl flirting. Many of the online reviews make it seem more lgbtq+ than I felt it was.  There are two lesbian characters that flirt and imply that their relationship will move forward, but within the Wild Ones they aren’t all hooking up.  Paheli and Taraana kiss, but nothing more graphic.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is any way I could do this as a book club selection at an Islamic school, nor would I want to. The book has powerful commentary on the status and crimes against women the world over, and possibly older, say early 20 year olds, would benefit from reading and adding their voices to a dialogue regarding life experiences. But, the story line might be too simplistic for older readers to bond with, and the confusion and inconsistencies may not be worth the time needed to finish the book.

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.  

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Hannah and the Ramadan Gift by Qasim Rashid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Hannah and the Ramadan Gift by Qasim Rashid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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You may have seen this new 40 page Ramadan book that came out yesterday and thought, “another book about what Ramadan, is and a girl being told she is too young to fast, I’ll pass.”  And I’m here to tell you, please reconsider.  This book is wonderful and it is not the same-old-same-old.  I know the title and cover don’t hint at the heartfelt story within, but it really does an amazing job of showing, not just telling, about the feelings and purpose of Ramadan beyond the restraining of food and drink.  The text is a bit heavy, but the illustrations keep even four and five year olds engaged, and the story works for Muslim and non Muslim children alike.  The OWN voice book has a Desi slant with Urdu words, Pakistani clothing and featuring an immigrant family, but the cultural tinges are defined in the text and it flows smoothly.  This would be a great book to share with your children’s class to show how Ramadan is more than just going without food, or being just one day, or one act of kindness, it is an ongoing effort to show kindness to those near and far.  The book shows an authentic Muslim family and presents universal themes, making Ramadan and Islam more relatable and familiar to all readers, and inspiring Muslim children to find their own ways to save the world.

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The book starts with Hannah being woken up by her paternal grandfather, Dada Jaan, it is the first day of Ramadan, and she is excited.  She hopes that now that she is eight years old, she is old enough to fast.  Her heart sinks when she is told, “Fasting is for grown-ups, not for growing children,” but her spirits rebound when Dada Jaan tells her that she is going to celebrate Ramadan by saving the world.

The first thing Hannah and Dada Jaan do is collect cans from the pantry to take to the soup kitchen.  Dada Jaan explains what a soup kitchen is, and why it is important to help those that don’t have enough food.  Hannah is worried they won’t be able to help everyone in the whole world, but Dada Jaan encourages her to start with her neighbors.

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Later in the day, Hannah’s friend loses a beloved family necklace, and when the bell rings she doesn’t want to be late for class, but she remembers that she is supposed to help, so she does.  Hannah finds the necklace, but her teacher is not happy when she comes to class late, and Hannah isn’t even given a chance to explain.

On the 11th day of Ramadan, Hannah and Dada Jaan decide to save the world again before they head off to the science fair.  They are packing up clothes to take to the shelter.  Hannah is worried that the people at the shelter won’t know that they are the ones that donated the clothes.  Dada Jaan says that it is enough to help people out of love and adds that the best superheroes work in secret.

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At the science fair Hannah sets up her model replica of Abbas ibn Firnas’s flying machine next to her friend Dani.  When Dani runs off to see a robot, his globe rolls off the table and Hannah saves it. Dani ends up winning and she is happy for him, but she is sad that no one knows she saved his project.

Twenty days in to Ramadan, Hannah has a play date with a girl she has never met before and Hannah does not want to go.  Sarah is new to the neighborhood and Hannah’s mom insists she goes.  Luckily Dada Jaan strikes up a deal that he will take her and they can leave when ever she wants.  Hannah and Sarah have so much fun together, Hannah doesn’t want to leave.

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When they get home, Dada Jaan shows Hannah old photographs of when he and Dadi Jaan had first come and didn’t even know the language.  They talk about how the kindness of others helped them, that and Dadi’s butter chicken.  The night before Eid, Dada Jaan asks Hannah if she helped make the world a better place, she doesn’t think she did, but he seems to think otherwise.

On Eid day they go to the mosque, then to the cemetery to pay respect to Dadi Jaan, and when they return home they find Hannah’s whole world there to celebrate with her.  Cousins, friends Maria and Dani from the church across the street and the synagog by the mosque, as well as the Sikh family that runs the soup kitchen.  Dada Jaan and Hannah enjoy gulab jamun, kheer, and jalebis as they discuss if Hannah really did help the world this Ramadan.

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It is hard in my heart to go wrong with a story that focuses on an amazing grandfather/granddaughter relationship that ends with them racing to get the last gulab jamun, so I might be a little bias.  But I was genuinely surprised and delighted by the direction the book took and the way it presented Ramadan in everyday situations that children can relate to and imitate. I was a little disappointed that the book wasn’t larger considering the phenomenal illustrations.  It is just 8.5 x 11.  I love that the characters pray and read Quran, and the mom covers and the neighbors are diverse.